A Pixie in Bude – Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist

The Queen of the Tarot suit of Wands, painted by Pamela Colman Smith

My first contact with Tarot cards was in California during the summer of 1968, at the age of nineteen. Well, that was certainly at an appropriate place and time! It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s connection with Tarot, and aroused my latent interest in divination – a way of gaining insight into the world which surrounds us, and a perspective on what the future might hold. My long-term interest in Tarot has been centred mainly on the traditional ‘Marseilles’ pack, with its vigorous images that have been passed down through France, Spain and Italy for hundreds of years.


However, it was a different set of cards which was revealed to me that sunny day in California. This is what I recalled:
When I first set eyes on the Tarot cards, they blazed a trail like a comet in my imagination. They hinted at another world, beyond our normal senses, and I knew instinctively that the Tarot could lead me into this realm…. Jo spread out the pack for me. It was a revelation. He used the Rider-Waite pack, created by author A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably the most popular pack in use today…Every card, including the suits of the Minor Arcana, is represented as a pictorial image, and is rich in symbolism… It is a very vivid, very bright pack. I fell in love with it. I felt that each card was a portal through which I could enter a magical world.

Jo’s reading has gone deep into my memory – so deep that I can’t actually recall what he told me! But its impact changed my perceptions radically, and from now on, the Tarot was imprinted on my psyche.

(Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration, 2016, pp17-18)

I first learnt to read Tarot with the Waite pack, and even when I later prioritised the Marseilles Tarot, the Rider-Waite pack was never far from my mind or indeed my grasp. I keep a set to hand.

When my husband, Robert Lee-Wade, decided to paint a picture of me reading the cards, he insisted on my using this Rider-Waite pack, as he found them much more interesting than my traditional sets!

But although I delved deep into the symbolism of the Rider-Waite cards, I didn’t think much further about the artist who had painted them – Pamela Colman Smith. In 1909, A. E. Waite, a renowned esoteric scholar and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had commissioned her to create these, under his guidance. They were published by Rider later that year. As has been the case with many female co-creators, her name did not achieve the same prominence as his. Until recently, that is, when her part in the project has been acknowledged far more widely. The pack today is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith pack – something of a mouthful, but fairer to someone who played an essential role in bringing these visionary cards to fruition. It has remained the best-selling, and best-loved Tarot pack in the world, becoming much more widely known after it was re-published in the 1970s.

My own connection with her Tarot cards has had a recent boost, when I found a Rider-Waite pack in a charity shop, of a different vintage to the one I already owned. This one has more beautiful, mellow colours than my existing pack, and looks older, although in fact the edition was published in 1993, later than my first pack from the early ‘70s. It also uses the original pattern for the backs of the cards, one of roses and lilies, as printed in 1909. Below, from the 1993 edition, are some of the cards which especially intrigued me when I first studied the pack – images, colours and landscapes which drew me into the story.

The Pixie of Bude

Robert and I live in Devon, and one of our favourite destinations is Bude, over the border in neighbouring Cornwall, on the north coast. During a recent stay, when the rain was pouring down, we decided to forsake the beach and head to the Castle Museum. I have to admit that our visit was propelled less by culture, and more by the thought of drinking hot coffee there in the warm café with a wonderful view of the waves. But walking through the exhibition area, where we’ve been on previous visits, I was astonished to see a panel now in place commemorating Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot artist and former resident of Bude. Few people now realise that she spent the last decade of her life there, and so local historians and Tarot fans have reclaimed her name for the town. I decided that the time had come for me too to explore Pamela’s life further, and learn about her connection with Bude.

The Castle Museum at Bude now commemorates Pamela Colman Smith’s life and work

A quiet arrival

When Pamela arrived in Bude in the early 1940s, with her companion Norah Lake, she was an elderly lady in poor health, who chose to live rather quietly. But although she kept a low profile in the town, she was still advertising her artwork; she had been a prolific artist with a varied output, as I’ll describe below. And now, being somewhat impoverished, she needed to make her art pay its way; as well as offering to paint commissions, she sometimes tried to persuade her errand boy to take a piece of art for his wages, rather than ready cash! (He was not enthusiastic.) Pamela had already been in Cornwall for over twenty years before she came to Bude, living on the remote Lizard Peninsula in a house known as Parc Garland since 1919. She now considered herself something of a native. But in her youth, her life had been far from reclusive or remote – she once mixed with a glittering crowd from the worlds of theatre and the arts. She was also a sophisticated international traveller, having lived in America and Jamaica.

In Bude, however, her remarkable life story was little known locally, and when she died in 1951, her effects were auctioned off to pay her debts. She now lies in an unmarked plot in the parish churchyard, thought to be a pauper’s grave. Much about her life in Cornwall and other biographical details has recently been published by local historian Dawn Robinson (see details below). As a minor point of interest, she was not the only person with esoteric interests to die in Bude, since the leading astrologer Alan Leo had also passed away there in 1917, although he was just there on holiday at the time.

Moonrise over the beach at Bude, captured on one of our visits

Why did she choose to move to Bude? No one knows the exact answer – possibly to ease her financial circumstances after her previous home swallowed up all her resources. Or perhaps she wanted to be close to a Catholic church, a rare commodity in the non-conformist county of Cornwall but one which Bude could provide; she had run her own small Catholic chapel at Parc Garland. But I wonder if instead she was drawn primarily by the landscape of legend in which Bude lies? She was deeply influenced by an earlier visit to Tintagel, a short distance away, with its Arthurian associations.

The old castle at Tintagel, once an important cliff-top stronghold and trading centre

Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in Pimlico, London, to American parents, and she later moved back to New York with them. As a young woman, she also spent time with her father in Jamaica, where he had business interests, and took up story-telling after she eagerly absorbed many of the traditional tales there. There is some speculation that she may have had West Indian heritage, as she was quite dark in colour, and her appearance, it was often remarked, hinted at something ‘exotic’ in her ancestry. She studied at art college in Brooklyn, and began a prolific, industrious career as an artist, which shifted to England from 1900 onwards. Her work includes illustrations for children’s stories and magazine features, plus the production of Christmas cards and calendars, and original studies of actors and Shakespeare plays. Although these are not ‘visionary’ in the same way that her Tarot and music-related paintings are, they show that she could absorb herself into what might be called a ‘legendary’ style, drawing on myths and folk stories, and depicting enchanted worlds. Later, as we shall see, her mystical and magical images began to emerge more strongly into life.

Pamela’s brochure for her story-telling and Christmas cards

She was remarkably versatile, and also worked as a bit part actress for the touring company run by the legendary stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; they became her friends and benefactors, and she lived with them for a while in Kent. Edy Craig, Ellen’s illegitimate daughter and future suffragette, became one of Pamela’s closest friends. Her alliance with the family also made it easy for her to mix in various bohemian, artistic and literary circles, where she became well-known as an eccentric but talented artist. She had a stellar array of friends and collaborators: Debussy, the Yeats brothers – artist Jack and poet William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), and children’s writer Arthur Ransome, who claimed that he learned his own rhythms of story-telling from listening to Pamela’s performances. Indeed, she held her own soirees and was famous for sitting cross-legged in gypsy robes while weaving a spell with her tales, reciting poems or singing at the piano. She served her guests with ‘opal hush’, her favourite cocktail of claret and lemonade (a drink also celebrated in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses). Her nickname swiftly became established as Pixie.

Pixie Pamela was celebrated for her unusual, ageless look and distinctive clothing: ‘a little round woman’ dressed in an orange coat adorned with black tassels, hanging loosely over a green skirt, according to Arthur Ransome on his first encounter with her. Her emotional life is still something of a mystery. No evidence of any amorous relationships has ever come to light, with men or women, although there is speculation that she may have been close to Edy Craig. And there is nothing indicative in her later companionship with spiritualist Norah Lake, as in those days it was normal practice for a couple of single women to team up and run a household together.

Some of Pamela’s art work, including the West Indian ‘Annancy’ stories, and prints from her own ‘Green Sheaf’ press. For a short while, she collaborated with Jack Yeats in producing a hand-coloured magazine, which proved too costly and time-consuming as a commercial venture.

Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn

In 1901, she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, and remained a member for some seven or eight years. This was a magical order, studying symbolism and ritual in a structured fashion, with grades and initiation practices; men and women were admitted on equal status. W. B. Yeats was a member, as was Arthur E. Waite, though during Pamela’s time there a schism there drove each of these men into different branches of the order. Pamela remained in Waite’s camp. Sources of the Golden Dawn teaching included Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism and Hermetic traditions such as alchemy. The set-up and history of the Golden Dawn is complex, and many studies have been written about it, so I will not attempt to go into detail here.

Pamela did not strive to attain the highest ‘grades’ of the Order, the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Perhaps she preferred to stay in the lower ranks to preserve her artistic integrity, instinctively protecting her own creative channels from too much outside dictation of form. But Pamela’s innate magical way of seeing the world – to which the legends and folk tales which she loved were a stepping stone – was probably first given a useful framework there. And even at the lower levels, she would have learnt much about esoteric philosophy, and gained knowledge of a structured, hierarchical magical tradition. This was in contrast to the ‘spiritualist’ approach of the day, inviting trance and spontaneous mystical or psychic experiences to arise. When Waite commissioned her to paint his Tarot cards, he was careful to keep her on a well-defined track, and to avoid complete free flow, as we’ll see.

It’s notable that that she entered the ranks of the Golden Dawn shortly after she first discovered that listening to music could trigger vivid visionary scenes for her. Her sense of a psychic dimension was growing, and the organised frame of reference of Golden Dawn teaching would be a means to understand what was happening. Without that, perhaps her work would not have progressed beyond the personal art of her subjective imagination, into her now famous depictions of the Tarot cards, which speak of a more universal wisdom.

Two of Pamela’s musical visions, which came to her when listening Beethoven: Sonata no. 11 above, Opus 84 below. She responded to most classical music, except for Wagner, whom she detested! Only unpleasant sensations and images arose from his works, she said.

Pamela herself was musical, as mentioned, and her mother was a fine singer. She had illustrious musical friends, such as the composer Debussy and the early music revivalist, Arthur Dolmetsch, and performing and listening to music were key elements of her life. However, something completely new happened on Christmas Day in 1900, which she celebrated at actress Ellen Terry’s house. The family were listening to Ellen’s son Gordon Craig playing a piece by Bach. One moment, it was simply a pleasant musical experience, and then suddenly, as she described it: ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square, and through it I saw a bank and broken ground, the smooth trunks of trees with dark leaves; across from left to right came dancing and frolicking little elfin people with the wind blowing through their hair and billowing their dresses. The picture was very vivid and clear, and a beautiful colour, with bluish mist behind the tree trunks. I drew an outline in pencil of what I saw on the edge of a newspaper, and as I finished – in perhaps a minute – the shutter clicked back again.’ (p 60: as recollected by Pamela in an article – ‘Music Made Visible’, by Mrs Forbes-Sempill, Illustrated London News, 1927; facsimile here.)

It seemed to be a one-off experience, but then a couple of years later, the visions returned when she listened to music. Each time one occurred, she drew it frantically, even when she was in the audience at public concerts. She discovered that if she didn’t do this straight away, she would lose the scene which appeared before her inner eyes. ‘If she ever alters her drawing in the least detail from what she sees, the picture breaks up and disappears. She feels quite detached from these drawings, and is immensely interested in them, viewing them as an outsider who has never seen them before,’ the magazine article continues. In one week in 1908, she completed 94 drawings, some of which she would later elaborate and colour.

Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?

Her visions have been described as a form of synesthesia, which is ‘a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses’. (Healthline.com) . But this generally implies a set of associations, not a full-blown image. For instance, I experience it in a mild way, so that the word Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, the note G on the piano is green, D is brown, etc. But even more elaborate cases than mine do not, as far as I am aware, produce a complete, live scene such as Pamela experienced. Her visions seem more akin to the practice of using ‘active imagination’, or ‘pathworking’ in Kabbalah. The scenes have a completeness and a life of their own.

I asked artist and art teacher John Pearce, who is himself very familiar with the Tarot, if he would agree with this. He answered:
‘Synesthesia is missing the point, but the idea isn’t wholly irrelevant. In any case, one should distinguish between fleeting experiences and what Oliver Sacks defines as “true synesthesia” which is “a congenital and often familial condition where there are fixed sensory equivalences which last a lifetime”.

Pamela Coleman Smith might have had something comparable to synesthesia. The difference was that her unusual sensibility was expressed as a creative response to a stimulus rather than a predetermined one. The visionary event in the Bach concert may be related to synesthesia, but is much more individual, even though there is an impersonal quality as if she saw a parallel world.’

(John Pearce’s recollections for our blog Soho Tree can be read here, and his own blog at Esoteric Postscripts . His artwork is at John Pearce Artist.)

Pamela Colman Smith’s grandparents were Swedenborgians, a mystical Christian movement in which communication with angels and visions are an accepted part of human experience. William Blake, who also had some connection with this movement, saw clear visions of angels, and some of Pamela’s paintings do have a Blake-like style. So perhaps this expression of wafting figures and otherworldly scenes was already part of her imaginative and ancestral vocabulary, which was later shaped further by the training in symbolism which the Golden Dawn used. Visions may come from another dimension of experience, but they are shaped and interpreted by our own imagination, which in turn is fed by the culture we have absorbed. At any rate, I think it is missing the point to call her experiences synesthesia, and to attribute them solely as neurological events.

Some of Pamela Colman Smith’s ethereal figures above, and one of William Blake’s paintings below, titled ‘The Sea of Time and Space’

The Collaboration

When Arthur Waite conceived the notion of creating a new Tarot deck, which would embody some of the wisdom of the Golden Dawn, his thoughts immediately turned to Pamela, and he wrote to an unknown contact: ‘I…have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set…(she) has some knowledge of the Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge which are not in the open day…The result…is a marriage of art and symbolism.’ Waite was an established scholar and esotericist, who was a leading figure in his branch of the Golden Dawn. He was 52 years old when the Tarot cards were published, whereas Pamela at 31 was very much his junior, and less experienced in esoteric lore. It was a natural consequence that Waite would take the lead.

So Pamela worked chiefly under Waite’s guidance, including in her designs what he considered to be the essential symbolism, but with scope to involve her own vision, and to draw on various historic and artistic influences to achieve the best visual and technical results. The result is a remarkable set of cards, each with an immediacy and presence, but which form part of a distinctive whole. Some of the styles she drew on were those of Japanese prints, medieval illuminations, Renaissance imagery and Arts and Crafts decoration. Her considerable experience of painting stage characters and theatrical scenes came in very useful, as they depend on delineating each figure, gesture and facial expression sharply.

The scenes above painted by Pamela, are both studies of the actor Sir Henry Irving, and in the scene on the left, he is playing Shylock to Ellen Terry’s Portia. Pamela acted with their troupe, and lived more or less as one of the family.

The scenes in her Tarot cards are certainly well-defined, yet there is something of a mysterious and magical quality about them. To throw in a somewhat odd analogy, I remember how I would gaze at the pictures in Rupert Bear strip stories when I was a child, and feel that I could be transported into that beautiful pinkish mauve sky, or climb those distant hills, or meet these strange characters on the path. While writing this post, I suddenly realised that it was much the same thing as my first experience of seeing Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards! There is a sense of another world within each image, not fantasy as such, but a kind of mythic dimension which we can grasp. Pamela, as I see it, had the gift to open that ‘shutter’.

The mysteries of Rupert Bear – as I experienced them as a child!

And Waite’s intention was to bring specific meanings into each of her paintings, embodying particular connections to what he called ‘the Secret Tradition.’ With his knowledge, and her imagination, the collaboration was a remarkable and successful project, as we can judge by the longevity of the card deck. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, 1938, there is a passage which gives a fascinating glimpse of the process:

Now, in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist, named Pamela Colman Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and loved the Ceremonies…. without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their subsurface consequence. It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries, in the Paths of which I was travelling. I am not of course intimating that the Golden Dawn had at that time any deep understanding by inheritance of Tarot Cards; but, if I may so say, it was getting to know under my auspices that their Symbols…were gates which opened on realms of vision beyond occult dreams. I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card, over that which is called the Fool an over the Hanged Man.

(Quoted in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, p. 75)

NB – the syntax of this passage is – well – taxing! I’ve checked it for correctness, and suggest that the meaning is clear enough if read at a brisk pace; otherwise strange clauses and word order may trip us up. I’ve highlighted the sentence where Waite makes it clear that Pamela was deliberately kept on a track which avoided wandering off on associative or psychic impressions, and kept to the principles which he wished to convey.

His method could be seen as over-dominating, but in fact it was most probably helpful to Pamela to have Waite’s guidance in keeping tabs on the essential symbolism and significance of the cards. If she was still immersed in Golden Dawn rituals, it would have been easy for her to ‘pick up’ on other people’s images, which can often affect us when we’re working in psychic closeness with others. Even if the group is working with a chosen symbol, this can take many different shapes and be coloured by our own imaginative versions of it. Having a guide or instructor detached from this can be crucial; those who have worked with ‘guided visualisations’ in a group will know the truth of this. So although Pamela needed to keep her visionary faculties open, she also benefited from having a collaborator who could help her to see beyond ephemeral imagery.

Pamela Colman Smith’s achievement, under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite – a vibrant, magical set of 78 Tarot cards. Those shown here are the 22 ‘Major Trumps’, and the edition is the 1993 version, which I have in my collection.

The Outcome

Apparently Pamela wasn’t paid very much for her work, and neither she nor Waite regarded the creation of the pack as a major accomplishment. But, as already stated, it is the most popular deck of Tarot cards ever created, and has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s where her real claim to fame lies, a claim which is becoming much more widely recognised today.

In some ways, I want to put Pamela’s personal history to the back of my mind now when I pick up the pack. Perhaps just for a few minutes at a time, so that I can walk into the world created by each those cards without too much conscious knowledge of their construction. But I also value this background knowledge, and both aspects are important in our connection with the cards. They can be studied, as they are full of symbols and telling detail, with the weight of a hermetic ‘secret tradition’ behind them, yet they are also admirably suited to just gazing on each image, and allowing an interpretation to come to mind.

In 1908, just before she painted the Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith wrote an article for the Arts & Crafts journal The Craftsman (p380), and what she says paves the way for how we can view her cards:

‘Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything!…Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.’

Postscript

Since I posted this blog, writer and W.B. Yeats scholar Grevel Lindop has sent me a comment about Pamela Colman Smith’s musical visions, and the suggestion that they might have been triggered by a particular type of Golden Dawn practice:

I had a thought about her visions. Her statement that they began when ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square’ strongly suggests that the visions involved (intentionally or otherwise) the Golden Dawn technique of ‘Tattwa vision’.  Here’s my summary of the method, from my Yeats draft:


‘The method was simple: we can take the yellow earth tattwa as an example. You gazed at the [square shape on the] card for about twenty seconds, then moved your gaze to ‘any white surface, such as the ceiling, or a sheet of paper’. You would see ‘a complementary colour’, probably ‘lavender-blue, or pale translucent mauve’. Closing your eyes, you should try to see this lavender square getting bigger, making it large enough to pass through, like a door. Going through it, you would visualise whatever landscape lay beyond – including any inhabitants you might see, who could be deceptive.’


Despite the reference to making it like a door and going through, actually Golden Dawn members often described the rectangle as a ‘window’, and Yeats would experiment on friends by asking them to visualise a small yellow or golden window, and then tell him what they could see through it. PCS’s reference to a square hole in the air that opened like a shutter suggests that her visions were either initially triggered, or at least developed, by the GD tattwa method. I don’t think synaesthesia had much to do with it.

The dates as we have them slightly differ – first ‘vision’ in 1900, joined Golden Dawn 1901. However, she could have begun some informal training or perhaps Mr Yeats invited her to experiment with this method.

Further Reading

Full biographical details of her life and work are now available in two excellent studies:

Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Stuart Kaplan et al, (U.S.Games Systems Inc, 2018) A beautifully illustrated compilation of Pamela’s art work, plus excellent essays on her life and times, focusing in depth on the Tarot she created.

Pamela Colman Smith: The Pious Pixie, Dawn G. Robinson, Fonthill Media, 2020.) A historian and writer from Bude takes on the task of composing a full biography for Pamela , with special reference to her life in Cornwall

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A. E. Waite is the classic introduction to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, written by the man who initiated the project.

Acknowledgements

I am thankful to the Castle Heritage Centre at Bude for alerting me to the fact that Pamela lived in the town. I also acknowledge drawing on some of the illustrations in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story to illustrate this account, and hope that it will lead to increased sales of this excellent book.

Thanks to John Pearce and Rod Thorn for scrutinising my text here, and making comments. There are also some excellent Tarot and Golden Dawn scholars out there who have helped me build up knowledge of the background over the years, including R. A. Gilbert, Stuart Kaplan and Mary Greer.

When the Egg Cracks Open

The Alchemical Egg

The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.

As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.


In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.

I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!

I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.

The Story to Come

In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.

When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.

This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy
(Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)

Emblem 8: Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
(from Michael Maier’s ‘Atlanta Fugiens’)

This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.


But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?


It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.


The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)


There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.

Setting out on the Path

Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.


Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.

Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’


Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.

A Road Trip in Mexico

In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.


For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.

Here I am, sitting in the car repair yard, wondering if they’re going to be able to fix our VW camper van. Zacatecas, Mexico, 1968

By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.

The VW van in the repair yard, with my boyfriend examining the rear door. Would you trust any of these guys standing around? We had little choice, though.

But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.

The Egg Breaks Open

When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.


Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.


If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.

The Story of the King’s Son


This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth.
The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)


His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.


It flew and alighted beside me
And turned into speech altogether
At its voice and at the sound of its wings
I awoke and arose from my deep sleep.
The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince:
‘Up and arise from thy sleep…
Remember that thou art a King’s son…
Think of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’


So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.


This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…


But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.

(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )

To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!

Following the Thread
What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.


Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.


Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.


Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy and Cooking

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Alchemy and the Trickster

I’m planning to offer some intermittent and experimental posts about alchemy, based on my book Everyday Alchemy. Alchemy itself is experimental, so it may be no bad thing to adopt that approach here! Here’s the first of them. But to begin with, I’ll say a few words about alchemy and the background to the posts.

When I was in my mid-30s, I was offered an unexpected chance to write a book on the history of alchemy, for a series published by Aquarian Press. They had been let down by an unsuitable text from the author they’d commissioned, and a writer on their radar recommended me instead. ‘How hard can it be?’ I asked myself, already well acquainted with Kabbalah, Tarot and the Western esoteric tradition. Yes, I would take it on. Oh, and it had to be completed in a very short space of time – 6 months, as I recall.

I soon found out the huge challenge of the task ahead of me. Alchemy has a lengthy and complex history, and it has been practised in all sorts of different ways. It was not the straightforward task I’d envisaged. However, I was lucky to live near the city of Exeter at the time, whose university had (and still has) an excellent section on so-called esoteric subjects. I swiftly learned that I had to be perceptive and ruthless in my approach to research, in extracting the essence, doing my best to understand and clarify it, and present a reliable overview within those few months. I also had to use my own discrimination, tempered by experience of the esoteric tradition and meditation. This was necessary so that I could discard peripheral and fantastical practices which were a long way from the genuine core of alchemy. Necessity drove me here, and I think the book was all the better for it. Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984 and has never really been out of print since, though in different, revised and re-named editions. It was met with good reviews and acclaim, and I trembled to be unseated by an expert who knew what I had perhaps missed, this has never happened. It remains one of the very few accessible studies of the history of alchemy.

The Red Dragon of alchemy, symbolising the basic energy or life force which must be released and transformed into gold

Everyday Alchemy (2002) carries on where my history of alchemy (Alchemy: The Great Work) left off; it reveals how we can use alchemical practice within the ‘laboratory’ of our own lives to achieve change. In Cherry’s Cache, I’ve already covered one of these topics, about cooking as a form of alchemy, and I’ll be coming back to other forms of ‘diy’ alchemy in later posts. But for now, I’d like to set the scene and tell you a true-life tale. So I start today with an overview of alchemy,adapted from the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy, and end with a story about encountering a mysterious stranger in shadowy Amsterdam. This is an account of something that happened to me the year that I turned twenty-one, and which I have never written publicly about before. Is that enough to entice you to read on? I hope so!

Alchemy, broadly speaking, is the quest to make gold from base materials. It is the art of transformation. That quest in one sense eventually developed into modern chemistry, but alchemy itself has never been just about material change. It is about mystical inspiration and powerful visions, and the interaction of mind and matter.

A historical perspective: the alchemist and his assistants at work


What is Alchemy?

From the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy

The practice of alchemy stretches back for thousands of years. It was one of the esoteric arts of the ancient Egyptians, who sought the secrets of transmuting metals. Later, seekers from Greek and Middle Eastern cultures recorded their visions of eternal gold, and added practical instructions for setting up an alchemical laboratory. From the medieval period, the quest for turning base metal into gold spread into Europe. Alchemists could be found across a wide range of society, from ragged tricksters who promised instant gold in return for funds, to philosophic princes in Renaissance palaces, who shut themselves away in secret chambers to pursue the Great Work. And over in the Far East, there were yet other traditions of alchemy, which focussed chiefly on the search for the ultimate medicine, the Elixir of Life, gleaming with the golden light of immortality.

An image from Splendor Solis (The Sun in Splendour), an illustrated manuscript from the 16th century. Alchemy is rich in symbolism, and here the rising sun symbolises the creation of gold in the alchemical vessel

The aim of alchemy is usually understood as the transformation of base metal into gold. Yet this can be interpreted in so many ways: historically, some alchemists certainly concentrated on the material properties of chemicals and metals, and their work in time gave rise to modern chemistry. This in turn then started to rule out the miracles and revelations which were so much a part of traditional alchemy. Other alchemists saw their path primarily as a mystical one, where developments in the laboratory were considered only an outward sign of divine transformation in the soul. But for most alchemists, spiritual and material labours have always gone together, and been expressed through the realm of imagery. The world of alchemical imagery is a fantastic one, teeming with winged beings, dragons and serpents, kings and queens, naked lovers, and exotic birds and beasts. Imagery forms a kind of symbolic communication between the different levels of experience. For us today, it is just as important to span these different levels too. But rather than setting up a traditional alchemical laboratory, we can use our own lives as the prime material.


Alchemy is a living tradition, and has to be re-invented in each new age. However, connecting to the lineage of alchemists who have gone before us is important; the tree of alchemy has many branches, but they all connect to the main trunk, the tradition of transformation. There are ways of filling in the historical background; we have access to a vast number of alchemical tracts, which leave us with a wealth of imagery and enigmatic writings. Alchemists deliberately set out to mystify, so that ‘the wise’ might understand, and ‘the ignorant’ remain confused. They preferred to leave clues rather than recipes. But linking into the tradition is important, and one reason why I have chosen to illustrate this book with emblems from an important source, Atlanta Fugiens by Michael Maier (1617). Emblems formed part of the core material of alchemy, especially in the seventeenth century. The idea was based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the belief that you could contain a wealth of secret knowledge within one image, which only the initiated could truly understand. These complex, many-layered emblems largely replaced the more graphic alchemical woodcuts and illuminations from earlier centuries. The best emblem books were published in different languages throughout Europe, and became common currency for alchemists.

Here is Hermes, aka Mercury, the presiding spirit of alchemy and also planetary ruler of the astrological sign of Gemini. This is how Anna Zinkeisen depicted him in her Zodiac Calendar, which you can read about here

The ‘patron saint’ of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus. This is why alchemy is also often known as ‘the Hermetic Work’. The secondary meaning of hermetic as ‘sealed’ comes from the practice of alchemy itself, and relates to the closed vessel in which much of the transformation takes place. On a more symbolic level, this signifies that alchemical work is self-contained, and must be protected from intrusion. The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus is known as a master magician, the guide of souls, and also as a trickster figure. Although he is related to the Greek God Hermes, messenger of the gods, he is a specific personification of revelation, wisdom and the arts of transformation. He is said to have initiated the first alchemists. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, thought to have been written by the sage himself, became the key text for alchemists; it contains the famous saying: ‘As above, so below’. The first known versions of this text appeared in Arabic in the 9th century AD, but its history may be far older.

A Roman copy of a 5th c. BC Greek statue of Hermes, with his traveller’s cloak, caduceus, and characteristic hat

Hermes himself has a life stretching back beyond recorded history, and certainly beyond the classical Greek myths where he was known as a tricky messenger and a charming thief. In his earlier incarnations, he was the god of boundaries, who carried a magical staff, and was also the mediator of quarrels, as well as being healer of the sick and patron deity of trading. His role was always that of a magical intermediary, and he could communicate even with the souls of the dead. From Greece, his cult spread to Egypt, and was then taken up in the esoteric culture of Alexandria, where Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions combined in the early centuries AD to form the Hermetic mystery schools, which also included a strong element of alchemy. Their guide was Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘Thrice Great Hermes’, and many of the inspired writings of that period were attributed to Great Master Hermes himself. It is not surprising that later European alchemists also took Hermes as their patron, and aspired to follow his teachings.
Hermes Trismegistus is one of the chief sources of inspiration for Everyday Alchemy. His key symbol is the caduceus, the staff with two winged serpents winding around it. These represent the awakened energies of Ouroboros. The staff stands for the straight and firm direction of the work: our central aim of transformation. But on its own, it is not enough. There must be ways and means to achieve this end. The two serpents signify the ways in which we must be resourceful and even cunning, moving this way and that in order to reach the final goal. The caduceus thus stands for the taming and harnessing of creative power, the weaving of its three fundamental energies into a new and higher harmony.

An ancient depiction of Ouroboros in a Greek alchemical text


Hermes as teacher and messenger also shows the important responsibility of sharing any gains that you make with others. There are stories of alchemists in history who used their ‘gold’ (whether material or spiritual doesn’t really matter) to help the poor and the sick. When alchemists succeed in making gold, they are expected to go further, and create the ‘elixir of gold’, which can then be used to make more gold. In our terms, this means that by transforming our potential into gold, we create new possibilities which may be useful to others. We have a duty to bring these to life too. The caduceus is also a symbol of healing, and is still used as such over the doors of pharmacy shops today.


One of the most ancient symbols of alchemy is that of Ouroboros, the dragon or serpent which lies in a circle with its tail in its mouth. Within Ouroboros, everything is there in potential, but as yet, nothing has been realised; the dragon is asleep. And indeed, we already have everything within ourselves that we need for our alchemical journey. But first we have to wake the dragon up. Then the aroused dragon must be battled with, and its three different energies released. The skill of alchemy is to combine these energies in a new way, so that they work at their highest potential. But, as the dragon says, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ And so the symbol of Ouroboros never loses its meaning, for in a sense, the journey is never completed; each ending is followed by a new beginning. Even if we eventually arrive back at the place we left, nothing is the same: all is transformed.

Ouroboros as a dragon, as depicted in Michael Maier’s Atlanta Fugiens. I chose emblems from this set to illustrate ‘Everyday Alchemy

An encounter in Amsterdam


Sometimes, it seems that an archetype can come to life. The story which follows does not feature in Everyday Alchemy, and I’ve largely kept it private for over fifty years. I wrote it down some nine years after the event, when it was still very fresh in my mind, and what follows is largely taken from that account. ‘Chris’ refers to my former husband; at that time we were still students in our last year of university. The meetings referred to were run under the aegis of ‘The Society of the Common Life’ in Cambridge, where we had very recently been introduced to the Tree of Life and Kabbalah.

As I was at the time, around 1970 – a photo taken in Cambridge Botanical Gardens

The Story

In the spring of 1970, just after we had started going to the Common Life meetings, and learning about the Tree of Life, Chris and I went to Amsterdam. There was no special purpose, apart from enjoying the last of our student vacations and mixing with the counter-culture of the city. By this time, however, this culture was beginning to peel away for me, like a skin that I didn’t need. Another kind of world was making itself known, and the old hippy ways were less attractive now.
It was very cold, with flurries of snow, and we spent more time inside than out. One evening, we went to a bar. There followed an encounter with a mysterious stranger.


Nothing was bright or light on the night in question. The streets were dark, and the bar where we went was dimly lit; I recall nothing of his face, or how we began to talk to him. But there cannot have been much small talk before we were all into the realms of discussing psychic and esoteric knowledge. He described an experiment that he made with friends, a kind of astral projection, in which they perceived one other as bubbles, floating up to meet in the air. I didn’t know whether to accept this, or be sceptical. Then either Chris or I mentioned the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which we had just learnt to draw and name. He showed interest, and asked us what it was. One of us sketched out the diagram and we described the significance of the different ‘sephiroth’ (spheres on the tree) to him. He nodded, and replied, ‘I just wanted to see how much you knew about it.’ Not the reply of a woolly psychic relating his dubious experiences. Nor did he go on to expound his views on the Kabbalah – no, it was left at that.

The ‘Ladder’ shown here, in Robert Fludd’s engraving, is an emblem for various forms of teaching, including the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (seen below in a modern Western form), which encourage the individual to understand and experience different levels of existence, encompassing both material and spiritual worlds.

We all exited the bar together, and made our way up to the Central Station. It is only from this point that I have a vague recollection of the friend who accompanied him, but who must have also have been present in the bar. On the way, although we learned more about our new acquaintance, his identity became even less certain as he professed dual if not triple nationality, spoke alternately in French and English, admitted to being known by more than one name, was not keen to be noticed by the police, and had several countries of residence. At the station he fetched a large rucksack, full of books from a left luggage locker. He couldn’t travel round without books, he said, but these were weighing heavy on him and he wanted to give us a number to lighten his load. We took an armful from him, and said our goodbyes.


Only later did I remember that the newcomer’s entry point on the great Tree of Life is said to be at the sephira of Hod, personified as Mercury or Hermes, the quicksilver trickster. ‘Hod’ on the Tree represents the sphere of rational mind, with attributes of quick wit, mastery of language plus deviousness and playfulness. As the archetype of Hermes in particular, he is an elusive, shadowy figure, speaker of many tongues. He is a traveller of no fixed abode or name, a trickster, a bringer of books and knowledge. And he is also fond of a joke now and then.


We still have two of the books he left with us, (
as I wrote in 1979): the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a selection from the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan. The rest of the books and papers have disappeared one way or another. I wasn’t attached to them in any way, and somehow that seems appropriate. (And now, in 2021, they are all gone…)

From ‘The Book of Lambspring’, an alchemical text of 1625. Here, Hermes performs another of his crucial roles, that of guide to the seeker. He leads him up up to a high place where he can see the terrain, the ground he has covered, the holy powers of sun and moon, and the journey he has yet to take.


Aftermath: As I’ve discovered through subsequent research, Amsterdam was once an important centre of Kabbalah teaching schools. Our own line of study in the ‘Society of the Common Life’ is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries in the early 20th century. However, at the time, I knew little or nothing about this connection. I’ve also now made my own modest contribution to Kabbalah lore, as the interpreter of the Tree of Life Oracle, a divination system which was bequeathed to me by my mentor. Rather like the hermetic, quicksilver spirit itself, this project has bounced through three separate editions involving four different publishers. It has taken three different names, and the planned publication date for the latest edition has been changed several times over. I hope now that it will shortly be available, in August 2021. Pre-orders are welcome! Just follow this link….and you never know where it might lead you.

You may also be interested in

Alchemy and Cooking

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

And please visit the website that I co-author on The Soho Cabbalists

Further reading

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

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