Glimpses of the Tarot – 7

The Magician, The Wheel of Fortune, and The World are the last trio of cards in this series. (Images above are drawn by my husband Robert Lee-Wade, for my book Tarot Triumphs.) ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ has now covered the 21 numbered Trump cards of the Tarot pack, plus the unnumbered Fool, who danced his way merrily into a separate post, called The Fool and His Feast. Together, these 22 cards form what is known as the Major Arcana. The other 56 are called the Minor Arcana, and are the equivalent of modern playing card suits, with an extra court card for each suit. In traditional Tarot packs, these are not pictorial, and it is the twenty-two Trumps which carry the strongest symbolism and scope for interpretation.

As I’ve mentioned before, for this project I drew the cards sight unseen in their sets of three, to present me with a fresh view of how they may combine. In writing this series, though, I did not stick entirely to these trios in the order that they turned up, as I wanted to create enough light and shade in the sequence of my posts. And I’m very glad that I left this set of three till last, as it’s very much an ‘all systems go’ combination, bringing about a new way forward. It just so happens as well that The World is the last numbered card in the sequence of Tarot Trumps.

All three images have movement – the quick moving hands of the magician, the turning of the Wheel of Fortune, and the dance of the naked female in the oval shape which here signifies the World. Together, I suggest that they imply creativity, the taking of opportunities, and the celebration of life. So as to make genuine progress, there should be watchfulness rather than reckless abandon; take care not to fall into grandiose illusion over one’s powers, be ready to accept that if you rise on the wheel, you will also descend one day, and also that any success in the eyes of the world will expose you to the gaze of others, and their judgements. But there is such joyous energy in these cards, that the way forward lies in action, not in delay or being over-cautious.

A traditional representation of the Tarot Magician, from the French Madenie pack

The Magician (1)

So what is magic? I have never found one single answer to this, but I’ve certainly come across ways of understanding it. One perception of magic is that it comes about when another level of reality enters our own, and that the practice of magic may be the act of inviting it to do so. Perhaps, too, we have our own magical resources to draw on – our powers of intuition, of using true will (the quiet kind, not the noisy shouting of our desires), or encouraging the creative spirit to manifest. I once heard a story about a brother and sister who I knew. The brother asked his older sister for her help when he was starting out in adult life: ‘I need to get a job, Sis – can you teach me how to do a bit of magic so that I can get one?’ He knew that she was interested in such things. ‘No, I can’t,’ she answered. ‘It’s not ethical and, besides, you’d never understand.’ A few weeks later he phoned her again: ‘Guess what? I’ve got a job! I cut my hair and bought some new clothes and they took me on. So I didn’t need magic after all.’ His sister sighed. ‘Brother,’ she said, ‘you will never understand magic!’

Above: two striking images of the Magician from Renaissance Tarot packs, commissioned for wealthy clients. One is fierce, and giant in stature, while the other seems thoughtful and laid-back.

Even when supernatural powers elude us, we can all use our wit, common sense, and power of attention to create truly marvellous effects. I’ve written about the Magician thus, in Tarot Triumphs: ‘The image represents the tapping of energy, and ways of directing this force with precision and skill. To keep this flow of creation going, however, one has to recognise that all the things one can achieve in this world are, ultimately, games and illusions. But play, colour, delight accompany this revelation. On the Magician’s table, we see the tools which are considered to represent the four elements, continuously in movement, forming different combinations every moment. The dice or counters stand for earth, the cups for water, knife for fire and wand for air. The Magician knows how to make the best of all the opportunities that each of these moments affords.’

The Wheel of Fortune in the traditional and popular Marseille pack

The Wheel of Fortune (10)

The wheel turns, cycles repeat themselves. We cannot avoid this, but we can try to understand the best times to act. Do you start a business, for instance, when the economy is flourishing, so that you can cash in on the upward trend? Or do you, cannily, go in right at the bottom of the cycle – if you can indeed spot when that is – so that the only way now is up? If you have a very clever plan indeed, you could even start an enterprise on the downward part of the cycle, as you know that the wheel turns in time, and at present there may be bargains to acquire. Any of these, of course, implies risk – no one is lucky all the time.

The skill of using the changing fortunes shown on the wheel – the King rides on the top, and becomes a monkey or other beast on descent – is to develop powers of recognition, along with a degree of detachment. Firstly, there’s the need to recognise that there will always be cycles, and that nothing stays in the same place for ever. It’s extraordinary how in some boom periods, a kind of delusion takes hold – that the price of houses, or tulip bulbs, or dot com companies, for instance, will simply go on rising, and rising. The wise man or woman stands back from this, studies history, and takes a cool view of the prospects.

The second factor is developing a sense of when is the best moment to take action, in whatever form may be relevant. Here, you need to consult your own lodestone of judgement: studying what others say is important, but weigh it up against your own experience. However, even with the necessary knowledge, it’s often that nudge of ‘now’ from within which is the surest guide in the end.

And thirdly, recognising when the boom is over, and retraction is necessary, may save serious loss or even ruin. Holding on, hoping for just that bit more, has tipped many from success to ruin. This can apply not only to material gains, but relationships which never quite make the grade, or the time to step down from a job or position of authority. It can be hard to let go.

A more romanticised Wheel from the 18th c. Swiss Tarot, with ‘Lady Fortuna’ turning the handle.

The World (21)

The World turns. The tread of the dancer keeps the eternal movement going, while at the fixed corners, the four sacred creatures watch the dance of life revolve. The image is a fascinating hi-jacking of medieval Christian imagery – such a framework usually surrounded the figure of ‘Christ in Glory’, not a dancing girl. But she may have her own powerful meaning, since in Renaissance Platonic symbolism, a naked dancer may represent the ‘Anima Mundi’, or the Soul of the World. (I’ve written about this in more detail in Tarot Triumphs.) This symbol as a whole can therefore unite male and female forces, and, as the last numbered card in the pack, it indicates completeness. The spiritual world and the material world are conjoined.

In everyday life, however, this image can of course take on a more individual or pragmatic meaning, and may indicate a person or situation where there is real harmony and contentment. Sometimes ‘The World’ tells us that everything is going along as it should, and that it is unnecessary to disturb the balance.

Here then is a card that can symbolise fulfilment, as well as reminding us that our lives are forever in motion. It’s a fitting place to end not only the entire Tarot pack, but the sequence of trios of cards which I’ve explored in this series of posts. Energies are finding a good outlet, progress can be made, and a well-balanced situation can be established.

The three cards from the rather primitive, but effective Italian woodblock set known as the ‘Bologna Tarot’

And finally…
I’ve enjoyed writing this, though it has challenged me – as indeed it should! I hope I’ve shown how the symbol on each Tarot card has its own inherent meaning, but that in relation to others, new aspects of that symbol come forth. In combination, the cards can give a picture of a relationship, a situation, or whatever subject the question may be about.

In Tarot Triumphs I have set out a sequence of guidelines for making your own connection with the individual cards, then learning different ways of reading them in answer to a question, from simple starting points of three- and four-card readings, to a more complex twenty-two-card reading, known as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. Whether you wish to read Tarot, or just to learn more about these rich, enigmatic and powerful symbols, I hope you’ll find much to interest you there.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

You may also be interested in:

The other posts in this series are:

Glimpses of the Tarot One – High Priestess, Lovers, Strength

Glimpses of the Tarot Two – Star, Hanged Man, Death

Glimpses of the Tarot Three – Temperance, Justice, Chariot

Glimpses of the Tarot Four – Hermit, Emperor, Moon

Glimpses of the Tarot Five – Pope, Tower, Judgement

Glimpses of the Tarot Six – Empress, Sun, Devil

The Fool and his Feast TheTarot Fool and the Festival which celebrates him

Glimpses of the Tarot – 6

The Empress, the Sun and the Devil

Today’s cards are The Empress, The Sun and The Devil. In this Tarot post, I’ll focus in particular on the relationship between them, and what it means to interpret a triad of cards.

Images below by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA for Tarot Triumphs. It just so happens that the Devil comes out larger than the others in my photographs!

The Triad

Every trio of cards presents its own challenge, because taking the symbols in combination is very different from studying each archetype in turn. We need to learn about them individually first, to grasp their essence, but the real magic of the Tarot comes about when we look at the dynamics between a group of cards. Three is the basic minimum for such a relationship; a solo card is a world unto itself, two cards form a polarity – useful, but goes nowhere except back and forth – but three cards immediately form their own connection. It’s rather like putting three guests together at the dinner table, and wondering how they’re going to react to each other. Will the regal Empress tolerate the sunny-natured, but over-exuberant guest on her right? And how will that sardonic-looking businessman on her left tell her what she needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear, that her financial investments are at risk? He won’t get any thanks for it, that’s for sure. You could invent a multitude of stories about such characters, in keeping with the Tarot archetypes. These particular three strike me as being awkward companions – strong-willed, full of drive and energy, and no doubt opinionated. That’s my immediate take on these three guests, but there are many, many more ways in which you can
tell the story of each triad of cards that is picked, and the situations they create.

Indeed, if you like writing fiction, the Tarot offers a good stimulus for creating characters and plot lines. Pick between three and seven cards, and see how they appear to combine and interact. An opportunity once came my way to do just that, when I was invited to submit a story based on a combination of five Tarot Trumps, for an anthology published as Tarot Tales. It is usually more fruitful to pick your cards blind, so that you have something of a surprise, which can be more of a stimulus for the imagination. Or if you already have a particular character in mind, choose the card which represents that person best, and then draw the accompanying cards at random. Not all the cards represent human figures, of course, but there’s always a way of imagining a person emerging from the symbol -a gambler from the Wheel of Fortune, a romantic novelist from the Moon, or a recycling expert from Death! They can be as light or as serious as you wish.

Images of the three cards from the French ‘Conver’ pack from around 1760

A three-card reading, as I write in Tarot Triumphs, is a useful starting point for interpreting a real-life situation too. ‘This is a simple, but effective way of reading the Tarot, and a good place to start, if you are a novice. It is also a useful method for any Tarot reader, to give a snapshot reading for an individual, or if you want to obtain a quick take on a situation. Ask the individual to phrase a simple question and invite him or her to pick three cards from a set of Tarot Trumps which you have shuffled. This is also an effective way of getting to know the Tarot Trumps, playing with them in threefold combinations and seeing what that triad suggests to you. As one of my own Tarot instructors said, ‘After all, Tarot is a game!’ (Historically this was true too, and various versions of full Tarot packs, with the four suits included, were used for card games.)

I’ll take the current cards one by one here, then suggest how they might be seen in conjunction with one another.

The Empress

The Empress represents worldly feminine authority, and she is also a symbol of fertility. In many of the traditional packs, her voluptuous curves hint at pregnancy, so she has a dual role. As the highest female authority in worldly terms, she helps to guard civilisation, and represents the power of the land. But her role as the mother of heirs is also implicit. She is both an earth mother, with the warmth and nurturing that this implies, but also the strict keeper of the hierarchy and of law. Although an Empress as such might seem rather remote from modern life, we do have our female prime ministers and presidents and members of royal families, all of whom have a particular position of authority. And if you take that into domestic life, even a so-called ‘ordinary mother’ usually operates from a mix of maternal love and strong authority. Both are needed and expected, with the important empathic and emotional bond between mother and child, but also the more detached structure she employs, employing rules and routines to govern behaviour and help the child’s development. The Empress, therefore, can be seen as a stern, controlling woman, which is her predominant feature, but she also carries an element of fertility and sexuality.

A woodblock print Empress from the Bologna pack, contrasting with the finely-painted reproduction of the Empress from the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned by nobility.

From the standard ‘Marseilles’ Tarot pack

The Sun

Unlike the complex, elusive Moon, the Sun shines forth in its simplicity. Its qualities are truth, openness, warmth, and generosity; it could also indicate friendship in a reading, along with trust and personal integrity. Thus the Sun in a prominent position may denote new energy and growth, or the healing of a rift. All in all, it speaks of creativity, love and joy. Every Tarot Trump has its downside though, and the Sun can also signify excessively high spirits reckless enthusiasm, or over-indulgence in pleasure. Too much sun can burn the skin, or even make us ill! Historically, there have been different versions of the card, but the prevalent image is that of two naked children playing innocently under the Sun’s rays. And it may be a very ancient motif, as male twins have been associated with the Sun since the Bronze Age.

A less common image of the Sun, with a naked youth on a prancing horse, bearing a flag. From the early Vieville pack, of the 17th century.
A racy looking Devil from the Bologna pack, with his henchmen chained at his side

The Devil

We don’t tend to see the devil as a significant force in our lives any more – or at least, we describe malevolent forces in other ways. But let us not assume that this Trump has lost all his significance. Although the Devil in a reading does not for the most part represent evil, it can certainly indicate people or situations that are diminishing our capacity to act, think or feel. The two little devils chained to his plinth have no apparent means of escape. Awareness of this bondage is therefore the first step towards liberation; to have a chance of becoming free, we first need to recognise that we are enslaved. We may need to use intelligence, compassion, or even cunning to release the ties that bind us in an unwelcome way, and to move on. However, sometimes the Devil indicates that this is a situation of very limited choice, and that we have to act from necessity, rather than personal desire. It may be time to ‘do what must be done’ in a difficult situation to stop poison spreading, or to prevent further enchainment. It may be time to blow the whistle, file for bankruptcy, or get the police involved. Unpleasant choices must be made; the Devil must be faced. “Take what you want, and pay the price,” is another relevant saying: the Devil is a reminder of the bill that must be paid.

A gallery of grotesque Devils

The Trio

Although there are different possible views of the relationship between these three cards, I am drawn to see the Empress as ‘lead’ card here, and the other two as dual aspects of her nature. This is only one of many interpretations, but it does integrate the seemingly opposed forces of her accompanying emblems. The Empress has both sides to her – the warmth and fertility of the sun’s rays, and the often unwelcome, punitive aspect of the devil. She may be gracious and generous, but she is in charge and will wield her power to cut off argument. She can be playful and tender in intimate situations, but is dignified in her outer role as ruler, mother, politician. But I invite you to try other ways of looking at the triad: what happens if the Devil or the Sun is the dominant card? Or if the three form a kind of circuit, where the energy generated courses between them?

In fact, a triad of cards doesn’t always give you a sense of a stable situation, and to anchor this, introducing a fourth card can help, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs (p. 89). A simple four-card reading involves choosing or picking a single card ‘significator’ to start with. It can act as a centre to the triad of the other three cards, or they can be laid out from left to right as past, present and future. With a fourth card, you have more context to work with, and possibly a time frame.

Reading the Tarot is not for everyone, but I hope by going deeper into the symbolism of the Trumps, I can show that they can be carriers of wisdom and generators of creativity, as a fascinating set of archetypes in their own right.

‘Cherry Reading the Cards’ by Robert Lee-Wade RUA. The set depicted here is the Rider-Waite pack of 1909, which is fully pictorial in both Major and Minor Arcanas (Trump cards and suits). It draws from traditional designs, but is also strongly influenced by the symbolism of the esoteric Golden Dawn movement.

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

Glimpses of the Tarot 5

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

The Company of Nine

We, who come among the dead as far
 as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
 maidens, lovely in our dancing,
 in bright loveliness of folded
 woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
 of ivory, shine, brilliant
 to the dead eye as forgotten daylight
 (7th c. BCE Greek Papyrus, from Dances for Flute and Thunder, transl.Brooks Haxton)

The Nine Ladies

The idea of a group of nine women or maidens who perform healing, dancing, or magical ceremonies is very ancient – much more ancient than we might imagine. It has served as a kind of template for what we could call ‘women’s votive groups’ in both a historical and an archetypal sense. The poem above is from Greece, in the 7th century BCE, describing how nine female spirits dance their way through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Move forward a thousand years or so to the British myth of nine sisters or priestesses who conveyed the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses along the way, and we begin to see a story here, of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.

The Nine Muses of ancient Greece: Engraving from a painting by Italian artist Baldassarre Peruzzi, of Apollo dancing with the nine Muses – (Credit: Science Source)

I knew about this template in historical terms to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was conceived as a response to the groups that I and other women were involved in at the time, using a schema of nine feminine archetypes to understand the role they played in our own lives. We called it ‘Nine Ladies’, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire, which we had visited on several occasions. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further. Then, three years ago, came the opportunity to re-write the book and dig deeper into research. What I found astonished me. I learnt that ‘the Company of Nine’, as I prefer to call it in the broader context, seems to be the fundamental template for women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until the present era.

This has been an exciting discovery, and in this post my aim here is to give a brief view of this wide range of groups of nine women. (You’ll find a fuller version in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine.) Overall, there is a range both of those who had a historical reality, as well as those existing in myth, folklore, or are symbolised within the contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function, whether of divination or healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future.

I would say that this symbolic grouping of women has a particular significance which is still relevant today. And its age-old form has a kind of life of its own. Since The Circle of Nine was first published I’ve been contacted by individual women who’ve discovered the book in a mysterious way, sometimes through dreams or omens. They, and others, have since created their own imaginative take on the Nine, ranging from organising drama courses around the nine archetypes, to making perfumes for the essence of each one. This is not, I’m convinced, just because of the book I’ve written, but because the book taps into something ancient that lives on in the female psyche. And I am just another mouthpiece for this.

The Nine Ladies stone circle of Stanton Moor, Derbyshire. (‘Visit Peak District’)

Above is the most recent edition of my book published in 2018 by Weiser. Below left, the first edition which came out in 1988 in a series called Compass of Mind which I devised for Batsford, with a cover by Gila Zur. Below right is the second edition in 1991 with Penguin Arkana. Re-writing the text for this new version, I realised that although much had changed for women, the Circle of the Nine archetypes remains a constant in our lives.

So now to some examples of the ‘Company of Nine’:

The Nine Priestesses of Sena

A very fine example of a ‘company of nine’ was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein situated in what is known as the Bay of the Dead, and thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses seeking guidance, wanting to know their destiny, and asking to them to charm the winds and seas to give the mariners a safe passage. These women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.


The priestesses of Sena seem to have had a historical basis, and similar groups appear in medieval times, where accounts relate how companies of nine women travelled around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is described in an Icelandic saga from Greenland; in the saga, a colourful description is given of her visit to a remote village, where she dresses in special robes, and utters her predictions from a throne specially erected for the occasion. Her forecasts relate to weather, health, and future marriages within the community. Legends of the nine abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. Such myths spread out geographically – St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint from Wales, is said to have had an encounter there with a magical wild woman, the last survivor of a company of nine sisters living in a wood.

This drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (18128-1882) was created for Edward Moxon’s illustrated edition of Tennyson’s Poems (1857). It shows the legendary nine queens (or sorceresses) who carried King Arthur’s body across the waters of Avalon

Nine Stones in the Landscape

The British landscape too bears many traces of the nine, as with the case of the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, which I mentioned earlier. Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters or Nine Ladies appear many times over on UK maps as the names of stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ carry legends about nine girls being turned into stone because they danced there at a prohibited time, such as on Sunday. But, although they may be frozen into stone, they can still come to life again. It’s said that if you enter the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…

The Nine Maidens stone circle of Belstone, Dartmoor – where there are clearly more than nine stones! Painted by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Often the name retains the number nine even when the actual number of stones is entirely different. Nine is stubbornly adhered to in the naming or folklore of such a site. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally! Arguments by scholars that ‘nine’ is a misunderstanding of the original name have fallen on deaf ears. William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’


Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that in terms of women, the Company of Nine stems from the widespread and ancient idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.

A visit to the Nine Maidens stone circle at Belstone on north Dartmoor (© Rod Thorn). I often visit this site. In the photo below, which I took recently I did arrive just before midday, and with a winter sun behind me, practised being a sundial! (© Cherry Gilchrist)

Ancient Tradition

Although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, still in ancient times but after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But perhaps this mythology itself was seeded even before the stone circles were built. There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.

Nine young women dancing around a male figure, from a prehistoric cave painting in Catalonia

There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it can still be found, where these old practices are still honoured in wilder parts of the world. It remains alive, in different forms, because it does correspond well with female roles, abilities and energies. Here’s a present-day shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the ‘Nine Sisters’ as they dance between heaven and earth:

We play on the rays of the sun
 We ride on the rays of the moon
 We rise into the heavens
 We descend onto the hills
 …Nine young ones danced
 They met a glowing mother
 Three times in the ritual
 We will dance the ancient dance
 All nine will dance together! 

And don't forget that we still have 'Nine Ladies dancing' in the traditional song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'! How many of us previously suspected that this might have such a deep-rooted origin?

My book The Circle of Nine is chiefly about a schema of the nine archetypes, which again has its roots in tradition but has been freshly set up and described for women in modern times. In this schema there are three Queens, three Ladies and three Mothers. Each has her own identity, hence Queen of Beauty, Queen of Night, Queen of the Earth; Lady of Light, Lady of the Hearth, Lady of the Dance; Great Mother, Just Mother and Weaving Mother. This was a schema I inherited, rather than invented, but I have interpreted each one with observations from life and from many years of working with ‘Circle of Nine’ groups.

This post is a revised and newly illustrated version of one originally published on the ‘Singinghead’ blog in July 2018.

References

The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003)
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats, Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, (Inner Traditions, 2015)
“The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487

The Fool and his Feast

A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot

Laughing Jester: unknown early Dutch artist, circa 1500

The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas

In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!

So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.

The Boy Bishop: a custom still carried out today in some Cathedrals, as here at Hereford, though slightly earlier on the Feast of St Nichloas on December 6th. He still has to preach a sermon on his installation.

One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!

For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).

‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brant

And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)

Various kinds of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ were a part of the Fool’s tradition at this period of winter. The image below comes from the 14th century manuscript, The Romance of Alexander (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)

A Festival of Fools

The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.

One of the earliest Tarot images of the Fool, from the richly-illustrated Italian mid-15th c. Visconti-Sforza sets of cards, looks a little more like a wild man, but is still identifiable as the more common Fool image in later popular packs, as seen below in the French Marseille Tarot.

The history of the Fool follows a complex trail, branching out in many directions and countries, but still recognisably with this core of ‘wise folly’. The Fool could get away with almost anything; he was respected by the mighty, and was not bound by normal laws. (Below: late medieval carvings of jesters or fools from Beverley Minster, Yorkshire © Cherry Gilchrist)

This is an excerpt of medieval music as was played and sung for ‘La Fete de l’Ane’, the the French equivalent of the Feast of Fools. You can read about the music and the feast here.

I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:

THE FOOL
In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.

From the French ‘Convers’ Tarot pack

The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.

The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.

And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.

Preparing for Twelfth Night

So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!

Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools:
Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006

You may also be interested in:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

May Day in Padstow

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Now winter nights enlarge 
 The number of their hours; 
 And clouds their storms discharge 
 Upon the airy towers. 
 Let now the chimneys blaze 
 And cups o’erflow with wine, 
 Let well-turned words amaze 
 With harmony divine. 
 Now yellow waxen lights 
 Shall wait on honey love 
 While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights 
 Sleep’s leaden spells remove. 
 
This time doth well dispense 
 With lovers’ long discourse; 
 Much speech hath some defense, 
 Though beauty no remorse. 
 All do not all things well; 
 Some measures comely tread, 
 Some knotted riddles tell, 
 Some poems smoothly read. 
 The summer hath his joys, 
 And winter his delights; 
 Though love and all his pleasures are but toys, 
 They shorten tedious nights.
An excellent version of this song, performed by Passamezzo

This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!

A Twelfth Night Cake

One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.

In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’

Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …

Fortune-telling with candles floating in a bowl, Russian-style

For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.

If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl:
Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for. A Russian Folk Calendar – Polina Rozhnova

The Calendar Change

I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.

The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.

A Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.

Masquerading is part of the fun as Russians celebrate the New Year season in the village of Kohlui. This picture was taken on my visit there, and the one below shows a camp fire we enjoyed with local friends, also as part of their midwinter tradition. (I’m the one on the left.)

And which date is which?

There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).

A goose was once the most popular bird to eat over the Christmas period; here’s my husband’s offering from a few years ago

Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.

The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.

Themes of killing and rebirth are often woven comically into Mumming plays

‘A partridge in a pear tree’
A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes:
A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.

Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!

Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?

If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).

Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)

An illustration by Robert Seymour of a Twelfth Night house party, in centuries gone by

The Cake!

I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.

This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.

Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats
Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos.
It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.

Ingredients
450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine
140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp)
Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp)
2 large eggs
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice)
1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing
2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making.
Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top

How to Make It

  1. Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
  2. In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
  3. Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
  4. With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
  5. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
  6. In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
  7. Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
  8. Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
  9. Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
  10. While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
  11. Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
  12. Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
  13. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
  14. Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
  15. Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
  16. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
  17. Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
The same recipe in my own cookery book. The photo gives a better idea of how luxurious the candied fruit might look, and also adds flaked almonds

Midwinter Darkness
And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!

You may also be interested in:

Summer is a-Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home

Topsham Celebrates

Glimpses of the Tarot – Four

A Journey through the Winter Darkness

As we travel through the darkest weeks of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, my next few posts aim to celebrate the different aspects of darkness and of night. I begin with another trio of Tarot cards, where two of the three images are associated with nighttime. Then I’ll follow with ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, traditionally both a resting and a feasting time during the longest nights. After that comes the story of an Irish monk writing a poem at night while watching his cat hunt for mice. Finally, we’ll emerge via the The Feast of Fools, a look both at this custom and at the Fool card in the Tarot. Darkness has its own rewards, as I hope to show. It can be a time to reach deep within the soul. It can also be a fruitful time for creative activity, for dreaming up new ideas and writing more freely. At the end of this very strange year, 2020, my wish is for us all to find both rest and inspiration during these weeks.

Today’s cards are: The Hermit, The Emperor, and The Moon

Before starting this series of Tarot posts, I shuffled the cards, then drew them in trios, sight unseen. I enjoy the freshness of seeing them in new, unplanned combinations. Considering them in trios stimulates insights, as each brings something forth from the others. A triad of cards is in itself can describe a situation or a relationship, and as such can form the basis for a very simple Tarot reading, as I explained in Tarot Triumphs.

Images above by Robert Lee-Wade as line drawings for Tarot Triumphs

The Hermit
At this time of winter, and in a year of pandemic when many of us may be in some form of lockdown, the Hermit shows us a way to go with his lantern. He takes us on an inward journey, shedding a light which aids us even when the darkness of midwinter surrounds us for many hours of the day. A Hermit was traditionally set apart from society, and certainly gave up any claim on wealth or status. But in fact he was not entirely solitary, as he was often considered to be a sage, someone to go to for good advice. He could be trusted because he didn’t have any worldly interests. (There were female hermits and anchoresses too, though as the card is male and space is short here, I’ll use the masculine pronoun.) His hermitage may have been remote, but those in search of counsel would often beat a path to its entrance. Or sometimes it was deliberately set up at a spot where travellers could readily consult him on their journeys, for instance at a crossroads, or by a ford.

The Hermit from the Madenie Tarot
Hermit in a painting by Jan Breughel, c. 1600

The Hermit’s lantern represents an inner truth, and in a Tarot reading the card might suggest a wise teacher or counsellor who guides you through dark places. It can also represent the seeker in our own soul, that spark of truth which we all carry within us. The light of the lantern can be hard to discern sometimes, and we may have to go deep into our inner world, retreating from the distractions of daylight, to find it again. Thus for many of us – myself included – the time around the Winter Solstice can be a rewarding opportunity to do this. Although the glitter and dazzle of the Christmas may prevail, there’s still the possibility to drop into quiet solitude, perhaps during the darkness of the long nights. Here, we can ponder, dream, rest, and reconcile the conflicting forces of life. We can shine our Hermit’s lantern into chambers and passageways which we haven’t explored for a while, and they may reveal more in that flickering light than they would under the glare of the sun. All in all, the Hermit can signify wise counsel, point to a personal retreat, or recommend a return to a simple truth.

From the so-called ‘Swiss’ Tarot, a later 19th c. pack which does not entirely follow the traditional set of images, but here remains faithful to that for the Hermit

The Emperor
At first glance, the Hermit and the Emperor seem a long way apart in their meaning. The Emperor represents great power in the world, and the Hermit has renounced the world. Yet they both signify authority, and they both support each other. The Hermit has inner authority, but in order for him to dwell peacefully at the crossroads, for instance, and give advice to travellers, those roads have to be kept safe, and this ideally comes through a well-regulated state. That’s the job of the Emperor, and his realm is that of justice, law and order, and a fairness in dealing with his subjects. A saying of Jesus in the Bible is relevant here: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. We live in a world, which needs order and structure at a mundane level. If that order is kept, then there is the freedom to seek higher things.

The Emperor, from the ‘Charles VI’ Tarot, now thought to be of Italian origin

In the Tarot, of course, all the cards can represent both inner and external forces. A reading in which the Emperor is prominent might be a call to get your life in order, and take charge of it. At a period of rest in midwinter, or at least a time when the normal daily round is suspended for a while, it could be a good moment to check out your routines, and perhaps the infrastructure of your life. Maybe something could be dismantled and re-constructed? Or, in an external sense, the Emperor could be a significant authority figure, perhaps a father figure, who may be either supporting or, on the other hand, confronting you. Does that need attention, perhaps? I’ll say a little more about his place in the trio further on.

A more traditional image of the Emperor, from the Marseilles pack
The Moon in its typical depiction of two dogs baying at the Moon, with two towers framing the background, and a crayfish (possibly derived from a scorpion) in the water below. (Madenie pack)

The Moon is for many of us one of the most fascinating cards of the Tarot Triumphs. It offers dreams, and stirs the imagination, but it can also be the gateway to illusion, awkward moods, and disturbing psychic experiences. The Moon is of course honoured as a symbol, and portrayed mythically in cultures worldwide, as I’ve shown in my post about the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and her Moon meditation. Its representation in the Tarot is unusual, however. Even though there are various possible links to emblems from Babylonian culture, Greek myth, and the mysteries of Mithraism and the Kabbalah, as I’ve explained in my book, it has a unique depiction and an enigmatic presence, which cannot be attributed to a single source. The water and the two towers always remind me of the Arsenale in Venice, and when I visit Venice, I always feel compelled to go there for this very reason. When it comes into view, for a few moments I feel as though I am in the Tarot Moon scene itself.

The Arsenale in Venice, reminiscent of the Tarot Moon image. (From ‘Photohound’)

The Moon is linked with our inner tides of emotion, reverie, dreams and nightmares. It pulls up images from the deep, and can bring confusion as well as a sense of joy at its subtle evocations. It erases the borders between us as individuals, or at least shows how illusory and shifting they are, thus leading us into the realm of psychic experiences. In some contexts, this is ideal: a shared visualisation in a trusted group, for instance, can be so much more powerful and resonant than one done alone. On the other hand, that delicate bond between individuals in a group can easily be damaged by a reckless or even malicious participant, causing pain to its members. Trust can be given, but also undermined here.

The Tarot of Bologna

The Trio – So all in all, the Emperor is needed both for the Hermit and the Moon, to provide a safe framework for their energies. We need order in our lives, and reliable structures. It would be dangerous to swim too long in the moonlit waters, or to rely solely on the light of a single lantern. But where would we be, without that force of imagination? Humans need, quite literally, to dream. And the Emperor may help us to distinguish between the light of the Hermit’s lantern, our own spark of inner truth, and the reveries of the Moon, which wax and wane. Keeping the dynamic of this trio is a tall order, but it can be done.

‘Reading the Cards’, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

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 – 3

Temperance, Justice, and the Chariot (Line drawings by Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs)

With three Tarot cards in hand, it’s nearly always possible to see a dynamic between them. It’s possible to do a simple three-card reading, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs, because any combination of three Tarot symbols can be seen as a situation, formed by a triad of energies at work together. However, I did feel that this particular trio of cards, which turned up when I shuffled the pack, are especially close in their relationship: they are all to do with the balancing up of different forces, along with principles of fairness and even-handedness.

Temperance from the Nicolas Convers pack of 1761

TEMPERANCE no. 14
This winged figure offers a rainbow spectrum of possible meanings, rather like a prism of light shining in the spray of the waters, which she pours endlessly. The waters do indeed seem to flow eternally, in both directions; one of her messages is that our resources will stay fresh and renew themselves if we use them moderately, but generously. Creating the right kind of flow is everything.

This image goes back far in history: Temperance’s action of pouring is similar to that of certain Assyrian deities, who were shown in winged form, pouring divine water into a receptacle. Although the Tarot card of Temperance is not likely to have a direct link with this mythology, it could link indirectly through the Renaissance use of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which followed on from Assyrian culture. The winged figure suggests grace, and a benign, angelic presence from another realm, so that this symbol can represent being touched by something higher.

Temperance in an 18th c. Tarot from Bologna

In terms of cultural history, this card of Temperance represents one of the four cardinal virtues, and could of course be taken as a stern warning against too much self-indulgence. But earlier associated meanings include ‘temperament’, as the blending of four elements to make up a person’s type. Temperance in a Tarot reading may raise the question of balance and flow; are the energies flowing well, and are they being channelled correctly in a particular situation?

Temperance from the so-called Charles VI Tarot, probably not French, but Italian from Ferrara, in the 15th century

Winged Temperance was also called ‘The Angel of Time’ (the words ‘time’ and ‘temperance’ are connected through their Latin roots), whose swift beating wings may announce the fleeting passage of time in human life. So perhaps the card could also signify that it’s important to make good use of the time available to us.

Winged Temperance, or the Angel of Time, from a reproduction of the traditional Marseilles Tarot
The Chariot, from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE CHARIOT no. 7
Here we have drive, energy and movement. The crowned and armed youth rides in a triumphal car, a classical Roman emblem of victory. As a Tarot emblem it can signify achievement, and the overcoming of obstacles. ‘Onwards! Forwards!’ is the cry here.

There is also an allegory of duality, embodied in the harnessing of the two horses who have to move forwards together, two energies which must work in harmony. Otherwise, if they go in different directions, disaster follows, the chariot is overturned, and all is lost. In psychological terms, this represents control over our own emotional power. Feelings such as anger, desire and excitement make terrible masters but excellent servants. The driver must be the one to balance these energies out, and to train his horses to pull together and respond to his touch. But, as is often the case in Tarot, this card also poses a question. The driver does not seem to have reins. How, then, does he manage to steer and restrain his horses without this direct control ? Something to ponder, perhaps?

From an Italian 15th c. pack often inaccurately referred to as the French Charles VI Tarot

Plato portrayed the charioteer as an allegory of the human struggle, where we try to control a pair of horses who want to go in different directions; one is of finer breed, and represents our noble urges and impulse towards truth, while the other is a brute beast, fixated on selfish appetites. This classical reference might well have been understood by Renaissance owners of Tarot packs, though it was probably not the only source for the image.

Small Triumphal Car c. 1518, Albrecht Durer (Burgundian Wedding) Wikimedia Commons

Historically, too, the image has similarities to the triumphal chariots that were still used in processions or as allegorical emblems in early Renaissance times. One early Marseilles-style pack, known as the Vieville Tarot, and dating from 1650, shows sphinxes drawing the chariot. This is the only traditional pack that I have seen with sphinxes, but the idea was certainly carried forward into the 19th century Oswald Wirth pack, and incorporated into the influential Rider-Waite pack a couple of decades later. Digging a little deeper, I find that Renaissance mythic triumphal chariots were often portrayed being drawn by strange creatures, especially sphinxes, which were portrayed as part human, part lion, and symbolised the duality of Wisdom and Ignorance. This fits in well with the idea of self-mastery and the need to control opposing forces that the symbol of the Chariot implies.

The Vieville Chariot, drawn by Sphinx-like figures

JUSTICE no. 8
The figure of Justice is familiar to most of us. She is Iustitia, or ‘Lady Justice’, the Roman goddess, with upright sword and scales. In the most common image we have of Justice today, she is blindfolded, but in the Tarot card she is shown with her eyes open. This affirms that Tarot originated at least as early as medieval times, as the general image of Justice was not depicted blindfold until the fifteenth century.

Open-eyed Justice from the Italain Visconti-Sforza pack of the 15th century (modern reproduction as The Golden Tarot)

Justice, like Temperance, is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, a schema originating in Platonic thought and taken up by the Christian Church. Possibly Strength may double for Fortitude, and, as suggested in my earlier post, the High Priestess could serve as Prudence. However, Tarot is an extraordinary mix of images and concepts, and can’t be pinned down to a single allegorical or religious set of meanings. So although Justice is one of the more ‘straightforward’ images in the pack, it is worthy of further scrutiny, to penetrate its deeper meanings, and perceive implications that might not immediately be obvious.

Justice now shown blindfolded as one of the four Cardinal Virtues, from the manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose (Bibliotheque Nationale)
Justice in the early 18th c. Madenié pack

Although the principle is universal, each culture devises its own system of justice. Both in a tribe or a large nation, a person is required to know its laws, and infringement brings a penalty, or a requirement for restitution. Thus the balance of the scales is set to rights. The ways and means are decided by those acting locally in service to justice, whether in the imposing Law Courts of capital cities, or by a group of tribal elders deciding how many cattle the miscreant should pay to compensate the man he has wronged. In families too, parents act as enforcers of ‘Justice’, handing out rewards and withdrawing privileges, often battling with the growing child’s own very particular sense of what is ‘fair’, and what is not. Justice is not perfect; many who begin legal proceedings for justice eventually come to wish they had never started. So the Tarot Triumph may warn us not to invoke the goddess of Justice unless we are willing to let her do her work, whatever the result may be.

‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ Justice points to the pattern of cause and effect, and invites us to learn its laws.

The Marseilles Tarot image of Justice

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

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Glimpses of the Tarot (1)

Glimpses of the Tarot (2)

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

In August, I featured posts about Russia, based on my travels and studies there. Here, we are back to Russia, but in a very different way. This story is from an unforgettable trip which I made to Siberia in 2004, travelling to the regions of Tuva and Khakassia. One of the most fascinating encounters that I had was with a traditional Siberian shaman, Herel. This is a shortened version of the article I originally wrote forQuest: The Journal of the Theosophical Society in America(Winter 2017).

Evening ritual by Herel and his wife at our yurt camp near Kyzyl

The first beats of the shaman’s drum were resounding, starting slowly but quickly mounting in intensity. I was transported, in spirit at least, back to Siberia from my home in Devon. But then came the sudden roar of a helicopter overhead, completely obliterating the sound I was listening to on the recording. I clicked on the pause button, and peered out of the window. A large army helicopter was circling right above me, barely skimming the rooftops of the town. Its presence felt incongruous, and menacing. But was it? Had I perhaps inadvertently invoked a shamanic presence, as I played the recording of the ritual in my study? After all, it is said that shamans can fly.

This particular recording was of a ritual that took place in 2004, in the far-off province of Tuva, Siberia. It was a consultation I had there with Herel, a local shaman. In fact, this was the first time I had ever played back the recording. I couldn’t bring myself to do so earlier –it might have seemed artificial, and dilute the experience while the power of that occasion still burned bright in my mind. But now, twelve years later, the time was right, and I was ready to listen and reflect. When the helicopter finally departed, as quickly as it had come, I immersed myself again in the drum beats and chanting. I sensed that I was sliding into a different world, eerie and disorientating in one way, but a place where reflection and calmness were also possible. However, the visceral sound of helicopter remained imprinted on my senses, a reminder that this meeting with the shaman had been a powerful experience, and one that, perhaps, was not quite over yet.

The yurt camp where we stayed, which had its own ‘spirit of place’ shrine, as did most sites in the area, including mountains and rivers

My own spiritual path has led me deep into the heart of the Western hermetic tradition – in particular Tree of Life Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot and astrology. At the time of my trip to Siberia, I was certainly interested in shamanism, but in a cautious, anthropologically-orientated way. I was wary of the contemporary enthusiasm for taking up shamanism. This provoked questions for me: is it possible to practice shamanism in a modern Western context? Does it require its own traditional culture, for authenticity and indeed safety? Many serious studies of shamanism emphasise what sacrifice is required from true shamans. Physical ordeals, renunciation of normal life and exhausting, risky encounters with the spirits, are part of the job description, in the efforts to help and heal others.

In a traditional context too, the shamanic path is not one that you can choose on a whim. Usually the shaman shows signs from childhood that this is his or her potential destiny. Having a parent or relative may pre-dispose one to be a shaman, but this is not guaranteed. Herel told me that although both he and his wife were shamans, only one out of their five children was possibly a shaman in the making. The signs were there at her birth, as the weather changed dramatically, from thunder and lightning to sunshine and then snow. The heavens were pointing a finger to her ability, which was now manifesting in later childhood through significant dreams, and encounters with spirits.

Pictured in Tuva at the purported Centre of Asia, looking very much the Englishwoman abroad!

I came to Siberia seeking answers to my questions about shamanism: can it be practised, or truly experienced by anyone not of that traditional culture? I had no doubts about its power, only whether it could survive in a modern world, without losing its identity as a genuine spiritual practice. By 2004, I had visited Russia nearly sixty times. I ran a Russian arts and crafts business; I had studied Russian traditional folk culture, learnt the language and mixed freely with people in cities and countryside. But I was keen to find an even older culture, to witness practices which go back thousands of years, and which may be the source from which much Russian folk tradition itself has evolved. Siberia has a living, truly ancient culture; the majority of its people are ethnically different from Russians, and its primary religions are shamanism, and Buddhism.

I travelled with writer friend Lyn Webster-Wilde, visiting the fabled lands of Tuva and Khakassia, along with the Sayani Mountains. Our trip was an organised journey of exploration with a small group of Russian travellers. We went in the warm summer months, when the forests were in full leaf and mountain pastures were studded with alpine flowers. We traversed landscapes that had remained largely untouched since the Bronze Age, including sweeping grasslands studded with standing stones and stone circles, like an airbrushed version of the Wiltshire plains. In Khakassia, we saw Bronze Age carvings and pictograms on rocks still relevant to the customs of local people today –of the magic elk, for instance, who they say leads souls to the underworld. Shrines set up to spirits of the land were abundant, and ancient ceremonies of purification and healing were still carried out at important ritual points in the landscape. This was the landscape of shamanism in southern Siberia, that as far its people are concerned, is still a spiritual, magical terrain.

A shrine on a sacred mountain, and a kind of temporary wigwam set up by shamans who visit this place regularly for gatherings. My companion, Lyn, investigates.

When we arrived in Kyzil, the capital of Tuva, we were put up at a nearby yurt camp, and then taken into the town itself. Here there is a monument that, allegedly, marks the Centre of Asia. It is also home to the shamans ‘clinic’. This is where approved and regulated shamans are allowed to practice. It might sound contrary to the spirit of shamanism, with its allegiance to nature, to fires and skies and a freedom of movement. However, Tuvan shamanism is in recovery after brutal suppression by the Soviet regime– many shamans throughout the whole of Siberia were murdered or dispossessed. In that era, some were even thrown out of aeroplanes with the cruel taunt: ‘You shamans say you can fly! Let’s see you do it, then.’ The tradition was severely depleted, but it was not lost, and is making a strong comeback. To a certain extent, though, it still has to work in co-operation with the authorities, hence the ‘clinic’ set-up. And these shamans certainly practice outdoors as well. They have special gatherings at sacred mountain sites, and as we shall see, our shaman Herel came to our yurt camp with his wife the following evening to perform a ceremony of blessing.

The entrance to the ‘clinic’ in Kyzyl. Note the figure of the eagle on the pile of stones. (Stones are often heaped up to form a cairn, with its own significance.)

The consultation
From listening to the recording, from my notes written at the time, and from the vivid recollections that I still carry, I now offer an account of the session with Herel, the Tuvan shaman.

So now our group sits in Herel’s consulting room, which is filled with feathers, ribbons, ropes, bones, plaques, a reindeer head, a horn and bells. They hang from his walls, a chaotic clutter of ritual paraphernalia, rather in the way that strips of cloth or leather hang from the traditional shamanic costume itself. He shows us some of the tools of his trade, and how they work. His is a hard calling, he admits. His own speciality is purification and divination, whereas his wife specialises in healing women’s ailments.

Herel, explaining his practice

At the end of the talk, he asks if anyone would like to have a personal session with him. I alone say yes. I’ll pay the price he asks – higher for visitors than for locals, I’m sure, but he has to make a living, and I don’t begrudge it. Later, Ira our young guide tells me that from all the groups she has brought to this place, I am the only person who has ever opted for a private consultation. This surprises me, but she adds that Herel is the very best of the shamans she has encountered, and a man of compassion; some seem aggressive, and the quality, she implies, is variable.

Lyn and Ira stay. Ira needs to translate for me. I speak good Russian, but Herel’s accent is thick and guttural, as it is probably his second language. Lyn makes a recording, her earlier BBC training coming in handy.

Preparing for the session

Herel dons an eagle headdress and tells me to sit on a bear skin in the centre of the room. ‘Raise your hands,’ he says, as he passes burning juniper around my body. ‘While appealing to the spirits, I’ll ask them to take your worries and bad feelings out of you, and I’ll ask them to make your future road happy.’ He tells me to shut my eyes, and bids me not to be afraid. Let the tears come, he says. Tears often fall during an encounter with the spirits. And indeed they do. I am moved, and emotionally exposed during this session, though I am neither afraid nor unhappy. Herel dances around me, drumming and chanting, creating a kind of beehive of sound and movement around me. I feel that I am in a magical chamber, in a different dimension of space and reality.

The ritual is constantly changing. I have the impression that his chants and cries are a dialogue with the spirits, as they shift in tone and intensity. Phases of the session peak, and then fall away into silence. A new one is heralded by the blow of a conch shell, or jangling of bells. Suddenly, he thumps my shoulder with a bear paw – it’s a shock. Later, he pulls back my Tshirt and spits down the back my neck. Curiously, I don’t mind this a bit. He even uses a whip on me several times, but it is never painful. I write down later that this is ‘stimulating and pleasant’, rather like using a switch of birch leaves to beat your body in a Russian bath. At the end of each section, he blows away the psychic ‘debris’ and sends it out of the door. I am in a different time zone, and have no sense of how long the treatment lasts, although Lyn tells me later that it is about 15 minutes

He mentioned at the start of the session that I have an obstruction in my left shoulder. ‘You are worrying about something. I’ll take it out of you.’ Curiously, at this point I have had several years of problems with my right shoulder, and already recognise that is probably stress-related. I can see now that if one side of the body is numb with some emotional weight or obstruction, then it’s the other side that may take the strain and display the symptoms. After the session, Herel says that he has succeeded in asking the spirits to relieve me of this. Next year, he tells me, will be more normal, and that I will start to be happy again, after going through a little more personal suffering first.

We conclude with three measures of advice. He tells me that I may come again next year, if I wish. But if I don’t, I can connect to him at a distance; he is able to sense people he has treated, and can help if needs be. He gives me a ‘spirit bag’, a little bundle of cloth tied up with cord, and tells me that I should feed it three times a week with oil or melted butter. It is my talisman, to connect me to the power of the session, and I should take it with me if I am travelling or am away on business. He also advises me to contact the spirits of place where I live – the spirits of the hills, trees and streams. After this session, he says, I will be able to do this. That’s if I have such spirits in my homeland. (The aftermath, of how I endeavoured to put this into practice, is omitted here for reasons of length.)

The next day, Herel and his wife arrive at our yurt camp to conduct a ceremony to promote the well-being of everyone there. They come as the light begins to fade, preparing the space carefully, setting the fire and arranging little balls of dough to mark out the territory for the ritual. Once the fire is blazing, they don full costume and invite everyone to sit in a large circle. I am still bathed in my impressions from the day before, and the difference between the two occasions strikes me strongly. This one is open to all comers; it has resonance and power but not, to my mind, the concentrated force that I experienced in my session.

Herel’s wife, playing the traditional shamanic drum, wearing her cape of strips of cloth and what may be another eagle headdress

Herel and his wife are dealing with a big mix of people, from earnest Japanese tourists to young Australian surfers, since the camp is used by various travellers passing through the area. Some of them have never even heard of shamanism, and are nervous, or giggle loudly at this unfamiliar ritual. At one point, Herel passes around the backs of everyone in the circle, giving some of them a thump with his bear paw, though never as hard as he clouted me the day before. I wonder if they realise that they are actually being offered a precious nugget of healing, or blessing, or insight? I have a video of this ceremony though, and even viewing it ‘cold’, a long time later, it is compelling, and there is an unearthly quality to the chanting and singing of the shaman pair. I do not know exactly what the sounds mean, though it certainly sounds at times as though they are in conversation with spirits.

The ceremony under way

One study of shamanism mentions that Tuvan shamans simulate bird and animal calls to express particular emotions: that of a raven to curse an enemy, a cow to call up rain, a wolf or eagle to frighten people, a magpie to uncover a lie, a bull to demonstrate power, and a bear to convey rapture. (Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003) The horse has special properties in many branches of Siberian shamanism; it is a creature that can fly the shaman to the spirit world. The bear, hare and eagle are also particularly important in Tuvan shamanism.

I suspect that the eagle is Herel’s own spirit guide, although – understandably – he refuses to tell us what kind of creature it is. During my individual session with him, I ‘saw’ an eagle.
My notes say: ‘Just the head, neck and shoulders were visible. It was quite clear and communicating with me – intelligent.’

The eagle cloud appearing after the ceremony

When the ceremony ends, the mood is peaceful. The daylight has not quite gone and unexpectedly, the sky brightens and I look up to see a cloud in the shape of an eagle just overhead. Am I imagining it? No, it is there when I look on the video later. Curiously enough, this video will give me a lot of trouble; I discover that the original mini-tapes are jammed, and only after various professional companies refuse to try and repair them do I find one local man who is prepared to have a go. Luckily, he succeeds in transferring the whole recording to DVD. As I said at the beginning. strange things do happen when shamanic forces are in action.

On a lighter note, after the evening’s ceremony is over, I pick up some of the balls of dough used by the shamans, and take them back as souvenirs to the yurt that Lyn and I are sharing. I hang them in a cloth bag from the end of my bed, for want of anywhere better to put them. That night, I sleep peacefully. Lyn, however, is awake for hours, disturbed by the sound of a mouse that has detected the presence of tasty titbits and is trying all kinds of ways to reach the prize. Scuttlings, rustlings and chewings ruin her night’s sleep. The next morning, when we relate this light-hearedly, to one of our fellow Russian travellers, he takes it very seriously. ‘No, that was not a mouse!’ he pronounces solemnly. ‘That was a rival shaman come to steal the power of our shaman.’ A little far-fetched, perhaps? But there again, if I am claiming that an army helicopter might be a shaman in disguise, perhaps my ideas are no stranger than his.

Sunset at the Tuvan yurt camp

As is often the way, my initial questions about shamanism gave way to a different perspective on it. My trip to Siberia, rather than achieving solid answers, showed me that shamanism is a living tradition that cannot be completely pinned down. It is in essence a shape-shifter, and will ebb and flow, finding different forms in different cultures.

I have come to realise that such a development is more important than an anxiety about inappropriate use of shamanism in other cultures, or the blurring of boundaries and nomenclature in academic studies. As Tim Hodginkson, anthropologist and musician, and former student friend of mine at Cambridge, says in his excellent papers, (see link below and Related Reading, below) shamanism is itself improvisatory. It deals with the circumstances as they are; it responds to very particular configurations of place and time.

And each of us may discover something different within its practice. Meeting the shaman gave me not just insight into the tradition itself, but a very specific outcome: it invigorated three of my major passions: the power of music and sound, the power of nature, and the world of ancestry.

The shaman’s shelter at the sacred mountain

Related Reading
Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape, Cherry Gilchrist, Quest 2009 and e-book edition Lume 2019
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats – Virlana Tkacz with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps
Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Joan Halifax E.P. Dutton, New York 1978
Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003
Shamanism in Siberia, V. Dioszegi & M. Hoppal (editors), Akademiai Kiado, Budapest 1978
The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Piers Vitebsky, Duncan Baird, London 1995
Transcultural Collisions: Music and Shamanism in Siberia, Tim Hodgkinson. Paper given in 2007 at SOAS, London; available on Tim Hodgkinson’s website.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin’

Glimpses of the Tarot – 2

An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards

This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.

The Star – from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE STAR (no. 17)
The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.

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

It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.

Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.

Swiss Tarot pack, probably early 19th c.

The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.

Marseilles Tarot

DEATH (no. 13)
In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.

An early Tarot emblem of ‘Death’ from the so-called French Charles VI Tarot, which is now designated as Italian, probably from the 15th c.

Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.

A balanced and watchful Hanged Man – Le Pendu – from Nicolas Convers, Marseilles 1761

THE HANGED MAN (no 12)

The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.

There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.

A tiny image of male and female acrobats practising, one balancing upsidedown on a rope. From Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’ 1658

And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.

The early ‘Charles VI’ Tarot (prob. 15th c.) card of the Hanged Man shows what is clearly an acrobat, using weights

So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.

Jean Dodal, Lyon, early 18th c.

Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.

You may also be interested in: ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ (part 1) and ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Kabbalah: The Tree of Life Oracle is due for re-issue October 2020, so may be on sale shortly after this blog appears.