Lay That Burden Down

I’ve always had a vague interest in the Tarot. Over the past year or two it has blossomed into a definite interest. I’ve been buying Tarot decks and Tarot books.

I’m not sure where the interest comes from. As a card-carrying atheist, I’m certainly not keen to wallow in the ideas of mystical transcendence that are prevalent in the ruminations of people who write about Tarot. On the other hand, as I get older, it’s entirely possible that I’m harboring some sort of wish for the comforts of religion.

For someone who cordially detests conventional religion, the Tarot has some definite advantages. Primarily, it’s a do-it-yourself approach to spirituality. There’s no creed, no doctrine, no authority figures. Or rather, there have been quite a number of creeds, doctrines, and authority figures over the course of the past 200 years, and they all disagree with one another in various ways. This leaves the individual seeker entirely free to choose whatever ideas he or she finds most appealing.

The older ideas and images in the Tarot date back to Plato and the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pantheons. This is comforting first because it’s all plainly symbolic, not real; and second because it makes free use of sources that are quite outside the ambit of today’s dominant religions.

As to whether there is actually any occult force at work when a Tarot spread is laid out — on that question, I’m agnostic. Of course the scientific view is quite clear. There are no such things as occult forces. That’s all a silly fantasy. On the other hand, when I ask the Tarot for guidance about a serious life question, shuffle the cards, and lay out a spread that amounts to a perfect diagram of my situation, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that the cards are no more intrinsically meaningful than a Rorschach inkblot, a meaningless jumble into which I’m projecting my own perceptions. So who knows?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

The problem I encounter, in reading about the Tarot, is that many of the writers, and many of the people who design Tarot decks, lean so heavily on Christian ideas. The man who commissioned the most famous Tarot deck, Arthur Edward Waite, was a lifelong Catholic, but he wasn’t the first to weld Christian ideas into the images on the cards. Those ideas have been there from the 15th century onward.

And I absolutely loathe Christianity. I despise it. The odor of sanctity is putrid and disgusting. Yet it’s all but inescapable when you delve into the Tarot. And not just Christianity. What stopped me dead last night was reading a description of the Wheel of Fortune card that refers to “the four letters of the Hebrew name of God.” Who the fuck cares about the Hebrew name of God?

If you want to learn the meanings of the Tarot cards, there’s no escaping this stuff. The meanings of the ten numbered cards in each suit depend heavily on the Qabalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Without the Qabalah, the numbered cards just have pretty pictures on them.

I like the idea that someday the Tarot might become the foundation of a new, secular religion — a religion that is acknowledged to be based entirely on symbolism, not on any sort of objective fact, a religion in which everyone is free to have their own understandings of the symbols. I think people probably need religion. They would certainly be better off without the crop of religions that are currently prevalent, and the Tarot offers a nice possibility for something new.

If only we could get rid of the putrid Christian goop with which it’s infected.

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3 Responses to Lay That Burden Down

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    Sounds more like you’re pining for the comfort of fellowship based on a common denominator of symbolic meaning more than the comfort of religion. Oh wait, that is religion. Not the patriarchal, tyrannical aspects of contradictory and nonsensical rules most people see as religion (gods as shepherds arbitrarily punishing there flock of sheep for doing what sheep do, whether by design or by evolutionary compulsion). As a secularist and (hopefully) an occasional free thinker I deplore mechanistic attributes of religions, especially the Judea/Christian/Muslim group (probably because of living in a culture heavily influenced by that chain–all are probably equally bad when one becomes intimate with them). But I have an affinity, a desire to touch something beyond my puny self, and top do so in fellowship. The existing major religions don’t do it for me mostly due to the fellow adherents. (Politically I could be a philosophical Republican in many ways but can’t stand Republicans. I equally deplore the practices of the Democrats but more easily associate with them as they tend to have a greater of nice people in the rank and file, if not the leadership.)

    But I’m digressing. I invite you to join me in fellowship based on my religion. It is a smattering of Ancient Greek (particularly the most ancient of their gods like Dionysius and Pan), a hodgepodge of hippie cosmic consciousness, comus book heroes, Zen, an understanding that all those ancient gods are all just symbolic and they’re all the same with different names whether Egyptian, Hindu, Assyrian, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc., and damned near anything you’d like to add. There’s room for Tarot if you wish to bring it in as a cabalistic type of mysticism or as a card game. Few rules. Maybe acknowledgment of fellow travelers, a little ritual if anyone comes up with something everyone likes (watching Monday Night Football, eating something really bad for you on May 12th, and the like), believing in life and that people really deep down want to be good, even Dick Cheney types (or not believing that), remembering always what love feels like and trying to keep the butterflies alive even when they died forty years ago. Stuff like that. Big rule: No proselytizing. Discussion without marriage to your own ideas is a must. We can be like aliens living among the humans, recognizing each other as we pass in the night but not letting on.

    An aside: When I was in college I took a poetry class from Morton Marcus (with an occasional rant when his friend Charles Bukowski would drop by). I had a long poem due tomorrow with no clue as to what to do. As always, when at a loss for an idea, I dropped acid. Always produced some sort of idea, mostly bad, but the journey was always pleasant (had a rad lab chemist as my supplier–made it on his sunporch–never had bad acid). This particular night I shuffled a deck of Morgan Tarot with a deck of Rider. I then flipped a card and streamed of consciousness wrote a line or two. Then flipped another, etc. When I was done I had an epic poem of Paradise Lost grandeur if not literary quality. Marcus liked it so much I got an A+++ and he offered to collaborate with me in cleaning it up into something worth merit. That is until I told him how I wrote it. Nevertheless he started coming around my house a lot for a joint and chat and eventually got the nerve to drop acid. He handled it OK. Justy a fun story.

    • andy says:

      It is clear that that Jim hates christianity but it is so cool that through that hate we can be friends Ron. Don’t fall for the hate rhetoric we can actually be friends. : )

      • Ron Greenman says:

        I hate all religions Andy, because of the evil done in their name. Then again I love them all for the truths they contain and their great fairy tales. And I’d enjoy them for just being crazy but the crazy manifests itself in so many horrible ways I just can’t stay amused. But yes indeed. we can be friends simply because we’re people. We can listen to music and share purple berries.

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