After a short introduction to the history and mythological origins of the Tarot, we will briefly discuss the alchemic meaning of some cards of the Major arcana: the Magician, the Fool, the Lovers and Death. |
On the symbolic meaning of some tarot cards
By Alessandro Orlandi
Produced for Esonet.it – Esonet.com
After a short introduction to the history and mythological origins of the Tarot, we will briefly discuss the alchemic meaning of some cards of the Major arcana: the Magician, the Fool, the Lovers and Death.
The deck of Tarot is made of 78 cards; 56 of them are divided into four suits (four queens were added to the deck of 52 cards known at the beginning) and 22 Major Arcana: (the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Lovers, the Chariot, Justice, the Hermit, the Wheel of Fortune, Strength, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgment and the World).
Erudite people and esotericists surrounded the birth of this game with a romantic halo of legend. At the end of the 18 th century, Court de Gebelin considered the 22 major arcana as an Egyptian wisdom book, ‘…the only one that survived the destruction of libraries of this civilization…'; he stated that the word ‘tarot' came from the ancient Egyptian ‘tar-rog': ‘the Royal path of life'. This theory was borrowed in the 19 th century by Eliphas Levi, Etteilla, Postel and Papus, who built complicated systems of astrological, alphabetical, numerical and symbolical correspondences. Some people claimed that the writer of the book was Hermes Trismegistus or the Egyptian god Thoth, others that the tarots were the result of a meeting of wise men from all over the world who had agreed to entrust the illustrations of the major arcana with the secret of heaven and earth, life and death.
In particular, tarots were associated to one of the fundamental Cabala texts, the Sepher Yezirath or book of Creation, a book that cabalists attribute to Abraham himself, and which contains the necessary science to create and destroy the world. According to the book the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet contain the power of the ten creating principles that God used to create the universe; they correspond to the twelve zodiac signs, to the various parts of the human body and to the main natural phenomena, whilst the four suits [coins (earth), cups (water), swords (air) and clubs (fire)] refer to the four elements. The twenty-two cards of the major arcana, rather than a divination tool, became a means to connect microcosm and macrocosm, a key to achieve man's control over visible and invisible things.
From the historical point of view, playing cards were introduced from the Islamic world in Spain first and in the rest of Europe in 1370 circa.
The first known deck of cards is Arab, made of 56 cards divided into four suits, 14 for each suit. The first traces of proper Tarots date back to the first half of the 15 th century, in North Italy (originally there were 52 playing cards; the four queens were added later); therefore it is thought that the inventor of this game was Italian. The game knew several variations and, between the 15 th and the 16 th centuries, it spread all over the European courts. It was mostly practiced by aristocracy and it wasn't very popular among lower classes.
The tarots were first known as ‘Triumphs'. The so-called Triumphs were among the favorite pastimes in the Italian renaissance courts. They staged triumphal processions with floats adorned with figures of classical mythology or personified abstractions of vices and virtues, similar to those that parade nowadays in the streets during the Carnival. A recurring element in the renaissance Triumphs is that each of these personified abstractions triumphs over the previous and defeats it.
We find this idea in the poem by Petrarca ‘the Triumphs', where love wins on men and gods, purity on love, death on purity, fame on death, time on fame and eternity on time. The name ‘Tarots', of uncertain etymology, replaced the term ‘Triumphs' starting from 1516; the word ‘Triumphs' started designating only the 22 Major Arcana, rather than the whole deck of cards.
Undoubtedly the deck of tarots was connected to the calendar: there are 52 weeks in a year, the four suits are the four seasons, 13 cards for each suit represent the 13 lunar months in a year, the sum of the points of the cards is 364, to which we add one or two ‘jokers', the ‘intercalary' days of the ancient calendar. The hypothesis that the tarots were used with divinatory purposes from the start, and that the 22 major arcana were inserted in the deck of 56 cards and 4 suits with this goal is controversial. In actual fact there aren't any certain proofs of the divinatory use of tarots until the 18 th century.
The first person to interpret the tarots from an occult point of view was Court De Gebelin in 1781, but it is likely that the 22 images of the major arcana, created at a time when ‘occult sciences' had great success in the European courts, were actually connected with esoteric symbolism. Nevertheless the fundamental books of the Hebrew cabala spread after 1486 thanks to Pico della Mirandola; the ‘Corpus Ermeticum', except for one book, was translated into Latin by Marsilius Ficinus and published after 1471. Therefore a link between the 22 arcana and these works is not likely. On the other hand, a relation between tarots and astrological and alchemic symbolism is quite possible. This hypothesis is confirmed by a comparison between the images in the arcana and the alchemic representations of the time.
Between the 19 th and the 20 th centuries there has been a huge proliferation of decks of tarots that refer to esoteric symbolism, created on purpose for divinatory use. Let's remember, for example, Etteila's and Oswald Wirth's decks and the tarots of the Golden Dawn.
The number of players in a tarot games during the renaissance varied from two to seven. The cards followed an anticlockwise order and, if the number of players was odd, the game allowed the person with the highest points the possibility to decide who to team up with, calling a card as it happens in modern terziglio. The cards were played a trick after the other and each trick consisted in a card played by each participant. The person who made the last trick obtained a special score.
The 22 major arcana worked as trumps (atouts) and often the arcanum of the Fool had a special role, because it compensated the lack of a card necessary to make a particular combination, as it happens with the joker nowadays. The game of Tarot marked the invention itself of trump and another hypothesis put forward on the use of the term ‘Triumphs' is that the trump ‘triumphs' on any normal card. In one of the most ancient versions of the game, seven cards worked as trumps: the Fool, the Magician, the World and the four Kings. It was played by two people, but the cards were distributed as if there were three, viz. with the Dummy.
According to Graves (‘The white goddess'), the art of divination can be dated back to the duels between bards followers of the waxing moon and bards followers of the waning moon. The time of things that appear and the time of things that disappears, the two faces of the Moon; the two orientations of the I Ching, the ‘mundane' and ‘pre-mundane'. The hexagrams of the I Ching, like the tarot cards, are ‘initiator' archetypes, viz. they initiate the person who consults them with the language of the soul, which talks through symbols, and they offer a ‘subtler' vision of reality and relations between things.
According to this view of the world, every constellation of events that concerns us is pervaded by a secret music, by a rhythm that only symbols can help us grasp, as if they were the invisible score for that music. The man who understands the needs of the time that he lives in, the man that the I Ching call ‘the noble', can dance and move with the rhythm that this music suggests, dances with the fleeting moment and, in doing so, he harmonizes his own inner microcosm to the external macrocosm, he follows the path destined to him, he ‘sees' with his heart.
This ability to overlap symbolic images to the world, grasping meanings and metaphors that ‘reveal', is obviously a double-edged sword. It is impossible to distinguish the ‘prophetic vision' from coarse blunder and illusion if we don't develop the ‘intelligence of the heart'. To see with the heart is a gift that is often acquired through the pain and suffering that accompany every authentic self-transformation; images destined to become the polar star of our journey spring up from the heart; it is important to distinguish them from the deceiving ones, though.
On this subject Homer talked about two mysterious doors where dreams and visions come from, connected to the two solstices, summer and winter, and two ‘doors of the soul', mentioned by many traditions (in the Hindu tradition we can mention the ‘Northern path', from which the souls abandon the cycle of rebirths and the ‘Southern path', from which they go back to it. Or, in Christian Tradition, the two doors in front of which, on the facades of gothic cathedrals, the Wise and the Fool Virgins are represented). According to Homer, then, dreams and vision come from two doors. Illusions, deceitful visions, nightmares, fancy re-elaborations of events actually experienced in real life come from the ivory door. Prophetic anticipations, illuminations that guide our life, grand visions that can inspire the destiny of whole peoples come from the other, the horn door.
Similarly, when we draw from the well of the soul to interpret the Tarot cards, we can be victims of hopes and fears, desire and repulsion, or simply of fantasy, and read empty projections into them. On the other hand it is possible, through the symbolism of the cards, to open the door that puts us in communication with the spark of infinite that lives in it, the same door that great poets open to get the inspiration for their verses. It is obvious that this concept implies an aesthetic view of knowledge, knowing through beauty, through the ‘brightness', the richness of meanings that a luminous image projects on the world.
The twenty-two Tarots become therefore as many alchemic, mental and psychic ‘magic operations' that act on the soul: an arcanum is what we must know to productively operate in a certain field of the spiritual life, in order to go from mere notion to wisdom and from wisdom to the ability to experience life's events in full consciousness, in all their subtle hues. We will move inside this idea to tell a small part of the symbolic meanings suggested by the tarot cards that we will examine.
We must specify that, in dealing with the cards, we will use the images of the major arcana belonging to the so-called ‘Marseille' deck, one of the oldest and most traditional [if you would like to study the history of Tarot we suggest the book by one of the most famous English philosophers and logicians, M. Dummet, Il mondo e l'angelo ( The world and the angel, Note of the Translator ), [Bibliopolis, Naples 1993].
Each Tarot card is a two-faced diamond; it can be seen either from the side of the journey of conscience or as and expression of the sleep of the soul; the Fool is no exception. The Arcanum represents a traveling man dressed as a jester who is bitten by a dog that rips his trousers. He has a knapsack hanging from a stick that leans on his shoulders, which contains all the Traveler's possessions. With the right hand he holds another stick that he uses to lean on when he walks. The numeration of this card, number zero, shows that it is outside the numeration assigned to the others and it expresses its extraneousness to any Order.
The card is therefore associated to the situation of a man who has finished a cycle in his life but he hasn't started a new one yet; it is the archetype of the traveler that crosses no man's land, he is not any more in the city (cosmic Order) that welcomed him in the past, but he can't see yet the land that will welcome him in the future. His Country is not an inhabited land with a king and his Laws, but a maze of streets. This traveler that, by definition, ‘doesn't belong', is the image of Mercury, the god of streets and journeys, the tutelary deity of Alchemists.
The wound given to him by the biting dog, not healed and always renewed, drives him to continue on his journey; it is the same wound that characterizes the eternal ‘boy' and ‘girl', the restlessness that troubles who is always looking for something. He is also the eternal Puer that lurks in the man who can't settle sentimentally, can't recognize himself in a job or social role, who doesn't feel that he definitely belongs to a family, a Nation, a time or a civilization and, nevertheless, for this reason, who carries in himself the seed of renewal.
The Fool continuously undoes and recomposes the weft of the opposites that we need in order to orient ourselves in the universe; he can re-install the primordial ocean of colors, smells and sounds that overwhelms newborns at birth. He knows how to reverse the weft of Time and to find the two different currents of Becoming in the same phenomenon: first the seed of future that expands to give form to new entities, then the contraction of forms that die, the past that vanishes and disappears from view. Therefore the Fool wanders around the inextricable maze of the Middle World, where our intelligence measures ‘inside' and ‘outside' organizing the world in opposites. If we only could look at the world with the eyes of a newborn, we will see an ocean of colors, smells and sounds. Even before discriminating such a chaos and trying to re-organize it according to forms and criteria, there is a stage when many roads can be traveled and it has not been established yet what is above and what is below, what is right or wrong, in which direction we need to look to see the things that increase and grow and in which direction we can see the things that get smaller.
This stage of perceptive and intellectual chaos leads us, as we will see when we will deal with the arcanus of the Magician, to the need to ‘burn' and dissolve the forms of thought. One of the fundamental stages of the Opus Alchemicum is known as the ‘aggravation of the matter'. In this stage the alchemist is under the shield of the Fool and he must consciously re-create the primordial chaos, give up all the intellectual instruments built with time in order to orient himself in the sea of happening, dissolve every interpretative form of reality, open totally to the unknown, looking at the world with the eyes of a child. Alchemists say that this is the only way for the matter to become active and effective before their Work; without the ‘Work in Black', without dying for the world, without the ‘aggravation', without re-creating the primordial chaos that accompanied our first steps in the world, no Work is possible.
The Fool is also the court jester who counterbalanced the absolute power of medieval kings. Psychically he represents the exit from the Order that we are immersed into, our possibility to give a critical look ‘from the outside' to every universe that ‘encloses us' almost completely in its rules and stylistic elements.
The question: ‘where is the Fool going?' can be answered by focusing on his legs. He is bitten by a dog on the left; he helps himself with a stick on the right. The dog's bite refers, as we said before, to the figure of the Puer Aeternus, an image analyzed in its most secret aspects by Hillman; it is the restlessness that drives us to search continuously, the impulse to avoid any Order, any definitive structure of our life, which is linked to the wound that doesn't heal. It is the same wound of the King Fisherman guardian of the castle of the Grail, a castle out of the world, of ordinary reality; the same wound as Philoctetes. Every image of puer aeternus has a similar wound, which is his richness and curse. It is richness because it induces to look at the world with new eyes, the eyes of who is looking for the truth; it is a curse because it condemns to never finding peace and quiet in a ‘safe port'.
The essence of the Fool is revealed to all those who oppose a constituted order without necessarily join another opposed order. It operates in buffoons and jesters, in the first revolutionaries (those who are put to death by their own comrades), it is expressed in the rebellion against any norm and authority, in iconoclasm, in the drive to wander without ever settling their own ‘homeland', in the motto ‘a laughter will bury you', in the rebellion of the son against the order established by his father. The Fool transforms all that appear solemn into pompous, moving into soppy, courage into presumption, tears into whining, love into futile adventure, he reveals the masks behind which we hide, allows us to get out of representations revealing them for what they are, he ridicules the expectations of our Ego. Gilgamesh and Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust are all emblems of the Fool.
With regards to love, the Fool can't settle on any woman (or man) in particular and he keeps searching for the eternal feminine (or masculine) through every meeting. The Fool is also a tragic figure: who experiences him without consciousness transforms all the richness that the archetype brings with it in desolating poverty. It is the case of Don Giovanni, who nourishes love in himself independently from its object. He can't settle on any particular woman and therefore he is condemned to continue his research of the eternal feminine through every woman.
The open wound of the Fool is also intolerance and inability to adapt to any situation that has a definite form and that undergoes an Order. This can even lead to total dispersion of oneself, to a vain and repeated search without an object. The stick that the Fool holds in his right hand and which he leans on is the Axis mundi. The Fool is the beginning and the end of the Work, he is the wise man who has left behind the troubles of the world and has given up what the world could offer him; he has given up power as satisfaction of desires and the path of knowledge as acquisition of new power (the renunciation to power of the Yogin in the Yogasutra by Patanjali).
This is also an exit from the ‘Mundane Order', but made by the Wise man who transcended it. Therefore, as well as puer , the Fool is senex because he is not rooted in the world any more and he carries with him the small burden of his personal experience leaning and supporting on the Axis mundi , his relationship with the world of symbols. Since he has turned his back to scientific intellect, magic techniques, or power praxis, he travels on secondary paths.
With the sublime contradiction that is a characteristic of symbols, the card number zero represents on one hand the Adept at the beginning, the coarse Raw Material not yet processed, on the other the Philosopher's Stone after its accomplishment and the Philosophical Mercury of alchemists. In the latter role the Fool embodies the condition of the visionary visited by the gods: he is the sufi or the Dervish turned mad by the love for God, he is the initiate to the Mysteries of Dionysus prey to obsession or Apollo's Pythia prey to prophetic fury.
Let's conclude by going back to the time and the bards of the waxing moon who challenged those of the waning moon. We can apply other categories to the time. Greeks distinguished four types of time: kronos, aion, kairos and suncronos . Let's consider the first two. If kronos is the time of daily happening, of the ‘here and now', of the prosaic following of our life's events, the aion is the time of gods, the time when divine, luminous and eternal enters our lives. There are very few moments of our life that we can entirely attribute to the aion, they are those exceptional instants when we face the myth or myths that rule our lives. (Example: the characters of myth and, in our time, characters of strips, live in the aion ).
The Fool is traveling between two cities, between two constituted orders and he doesn't belong to any of them, therefore he is immersed in aion , the mad and sublime time of gods. It is a time close to dream and visions. From this time he can draw the images and visions that we will mention when talking about the Magician; he can use ‘active imagination', the alchemic technique par excellence. But in order to draw from this well full of treasures, we must temporarily forgo our rational part, our being immersed in the cyclical time of happening, in other words all our certainties.
In card games where Tarots were used the loss of the Magician or of a King often involved penalties. Court De Gebelin states that the term Bagatto ( Bagatto is the Italian name for the Magician ) comes from Aramaic Pag ‘leader, teacher, master' and Gad ‘luck'. The card represents a magician (holding a magic wand in his left hand) or a jester, standing next to a table where the tools of his art are displayed. Let's think about the attitude of the Magician and some details of the image. First of all it is obvious that the figure represents someone starting an enterprise. The aspirant magician – jester must master the secrets of the art that will allow him to manipulate the tools on the table, which are a bag, a knife, dice, a glass and a dice-box.
Therefore this card is the archetype of the starting point of any new stage in life, new love stories, new job or a spiritual transformation that will lead us to reconsider our life from a different point of view. This symbology is made stronger by the fact that the Magician looks towards the right, the symbolic direction where the sun rises at the dawn of a new day. It is notable that the Magician, looking at the right, doesn't look at the objects he's manipulating with the right hand.
Now we must focus on the fact that the Magician represents someone who is about to carry out a job that appears as a game; he is an apprentice, it is true, but whatever the activity he is going to perform, he is also a jester. The key to understand this point is given by the hat in the shape of an upside-down eight, the curve that mathematicians call lemniscate and use to symbolize the infinite. On the head of the Magician, therefore, there is the infinite. The key is the same that allows the Zen archer to hit the center without looking at the target, the yogin in meditation to conquer the intuitive and immediate vision of the relations between things that we call ‘illumination' and that allows the person who achieves it to penetrate without effort the nucleus of the reality of things. It is the inner attitude that the alchemist must achieve in order to carry out his Work, an attitude free from desire and similar to the spirit that animates children playing, so much so that the Opus magnum was called ‘ Ludus puerorum ' by alchemists. In any art or discipline it is essential to reach the ‘inner silence' in order to draw a strength that is not only individual and that allows the person who has it to carry out unimaginable enterprises. Imagine a footballer that shoots straight into the goal and scores; if he ‘consciously thought about' what he's doing, he wouldn't find the right coordination to place the ball into the goal.
In the field of thought the activity of the Magician is concentration without effort, the use of metaphor, analogy and myth to find the deep essence of things, the relations between our individual microcosm and macrocosm. From a positive point of view these abilities lead to the vision of correspondences and unity among beings, to the intelligence of the heart. Apparently only a breath separates the magician from the charlatan, the man who actually carries the seal of the infinite on his head, who has opened his superior chakra, from the man who claims credit and passes off his own arbitrary mental association as absolute truth.
It is not a little difference, and it is the difference between mirages and reality! The work necessary to conquer the ability of concentration, inner silence, the ability of intuitive and immediate perception of the ‘subtle' realities, the spontaneous and effortless flow of analogies and metaphors, the activation of myths can be described in many ways and follow many praxis, according to the tradition it refers to. We should always ask ourselves: Which myth ‘surrounds' the activity that I am about to start? In which way the archetypes reverberate their energy on the path that I am traveling? The man who is able to perceive this subtle activity of the invisible in the visible, can also see the reflection of his own inner activity in ‘casual events'. Nevertheless, here as well it is very easy to confuse the great wise man, which can see the warnings of the coming fate through unperceivable signs with the fool, the mad and obsessive-compulsive man, who tends to read every meaningless event as a premonitory sign and who gives form to his neurosis.
Whatever the Path we choose, there is an essential element for the achievement of the inner silence: the dissolution of forms of thought, of the wrapping that covers us and that Tibetans say that is waiting for us in the Bard, after death, to banquet with our energies.
It is an invisible skin that we build around us with hopes, dreads and fears, anger and frustration, manias and obsessions that we nurture during our life, often driven by our own passion. Tibetan Buddhists think that if these forms of thought are sufficiently nourished during our life, they can go around the world living their own existence; they can even exist after our departure, like ghosts in horror stories. To dissolve them means to get rid of any attachment to the ‘result' of our actions; Taoists call this achievement ‘Wu Wei', the ‘non doing'.
To act without anxiety for the ‘result' of the action doesn't mean to act slovenly and inconsiderately, but it means to let the sparkle of infinite hidden inside us act, acting without ‘doing'. The lemniscate that appears on the head of the Magician refers to the achievement of this inner condition.
The card of the Magician sheds a new light on a passage of Mark's gospel (Mk 10.15) that says: ‘Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it'.
Finally we can compare the practice to nurture forms of thought destined to devour us with another practice, of which the Magician is a symbol; it is the activity that in Jungian psychoanalysis is known by the name of ‘active imagination'. Once that the forms of thought are dissolved, that the work of inner cleansing, comparable to the nigredo of the alchemists, has been accomplished, it is possible to use the creative faculties given to man to give shape to luminous creations of imagination. This is the ability mentioned in the Genesis, when it is said that God gave Adam in the Eden the power to ‘give things a name'. In particular alchemists aim at the creation of an immortal and incorruptible body where to transfer their consciousness, which is one of the main objectives of the Great Work.
In conclusion we can focus our attention on the last detail of the card, which we have so far overlooked: the magic wand that the Magician holds in his left hand. It is the wand of omens, divinatory powers, the wand of dowsers used to find water but also hidden treasures (and even bodies, thieves and murderers), the magic wand of wizards and fairies, the same wand used by Demeter's priestesses to invoke the Chthonic deities of fertility. The wand of wizards and fairies, as well as the broom of the witches, draws its power from the fact that it is made of the wood from a holy tree, it is a small version of the ‘incarnation' of the axis mundi , the invisible axis that links the different planes of existence. Therefore the Magician is the man who can draw symbols from the universe and apply them to the contingent reality, transferring their power on his soul and on the world. Every time that the Magician touches us, we play a different role in the Theater of the Infinite; we identify in situations and attitudes we had never experienced before and we learn to ‘play' in this particular condition and to ‘recognize' and apply in the outside reality all the ‘charms' and magical tools gained by our soul during its previous experiences.
In this card there are three figures surmounted by a Cupid that shoots an arrow. There is a man in the center and two women at his sides. The brunette to the right of the man has her hand on his shoulder, whilst with her left hand she points at the ground. The blonde woman points to the heart of the man with a finger and with the other hand, peculiarly twisted, points at her own womb. Eros-Cupid's arrow seems to point at the blonde woman, whilst the eyes of the man are turned to the brunette. Finally, the man points at a spot next to his belly button and behind Eros shooting his arrow there are yellow, red and blue sun rays.
The scene represented in the card has often been mistaken for the image of a priest joining a man and a woman in marriage…but this interpretation is false and we will just ignore it. The brunette is dressed in red (which refers to the day) with blue sleeves (a reference to the night); she represents the appearances that deceive the senses. It is the easy Path that derives from incarnating, giving birth to the ghosts of mind through action. Her hand leaning on the man's right shoulder forces him to do, whilst the man's eyes fixed on the brunette seem to ignore the presence of the blonde.
The colors of the brunette's dress show that she is visible and attracts attention, but the way she acts is occult to conscience, it is inner and nocturnal, invisible to the eye. She represents the forms of thought generated by the mind that intercept our attention and turn our energies to false targets; she represents the empty exteriority that leads us to appreciate only exterior qualities such as beauty or social class in a woman (or in a man for women). For the alchemist it is the mortal and perishable body, destined to die and go back to earth, which tries to attract the attention and energies of the Adept on itself, as if it was the only possible reality. With her other hand the brunette points at the ground, because the man who follows the path of the brunette is destined to invest his energy solely in what is visible and material, and later to die and be swallowed by the ground and never resurrect.
The other woman, blonde, is revealed only by the hearing of the heart and the arrows of Eros-Cupid are destined to her; this feminine figure represents the immortal body, the body of Resurrection that the alchemic Work aims at re-awakening. In the blonde woman the secret of the card of the Lovers is pronounced; the secret Path of the heart; but the arrows of Eros come from above, from a vertical dimension that becomes active only for those who ‘recognize' that what exists is not only what is visible… indeed, the essential is invisible to the eye. The blonde woman, on the contrary of the brunette, is dressed in Blue and the inside of her mantle is red, viz. it becomes visible only to the man who has accomplished his inner work. With a finger she points at the man's heart, through which she can be recognized; with the other twisted hand she points at her own womb and this gesture refers to an Arcanum that is perhaps the most impenetrable secret of the alchemic Work.
We said that the two women represent two Paths; the first, the brunette, connected to appearances, the Path of the mortal body, which leads it to putrefaction and non-rebirth, whilst the Blonde woman is the vehicle that can lead us to meet another mysterious body, which lies asleep for all of us and wakes up slightly whilst we dream; it is a body that the alchemist must reawaken completely and that gives him immortality. We might say that the two women are the two mercuries, one diurnal and one nocturnal, represented in many alchemical illustrations, such as one of the incisions of the ‘twelve keys of philosophy' by Basilio Valentino. Nevertheless only the rays of the sun of Eros, the midnight sun coming from above, only Grace can reawake the Body of Resurrection. The twisting of the wrist of the blonde woman was called by French alchemists ‘tour de main'; it is a play on words and it means the highest manual ability of the Alchemist Artist: it is the ability to direct the arrows of Eros. We could daringly hypothesize that intention and will must go back up against their nature, along the opposite direction to what is normally addressed at and for this reason the alchemic Work is often called ‘Opus contra naturam'.
As we can see the common interpretation given to the card of the Lovers: ‘make a choice between two alternatives' is not false, but it is indeed restrictive. It is a choice, but the alternative which the card refers to is one of the most compelling ones, it is a choice between life and death, between the generation of Spirit and Matter, between deceitful appearance and invisible essence of things. The difficult ‘tour de main', which only the expert alchemist can carry out in order to become the Master of the arrows of Eros, is a secret which must be kept as such and if it was revealed by the person who learnt it, this would be sacrilegious. Only the divine Grace can reveal it to those who deserve it. In its ‘practical' meaning the Arcanum represents a choice that must be made between a path that appears in front of us and invites us to take it but might only bring us material advantages and not a real evolution, and another hidden path which only the heart can see, which can lead us to a real transformation.
This card, the thirteenth, represents a skeleton, Death, holding and using a sickle. At its feet there are cut heads, bones, feet and hands as well as low yellow and blue vegetation. We can see that the human remains around death have been reaped by its sickle.
The death which this card refers to is not only physical death. In the symbology of Tarot ‘death' is a status that preludes to a radical change which, in order to be reached, requires a detachment from previous bonds, a break of ties that don't have any reason to be any more, and which must be broken in order for the transformation to take place. The perspective of those who experience the symbology of the thirteenth card is similar to those who face a door but, before entering it, they must purify themselves and get rid of useless burdens that prevent the passage.
In actual fact there are many types of death: oblivion, which can be the death of will, psyche or intellect, the death of the body, but also sleep.
Each of these deaths can be accompanied by a regeneration and have a positive value. Sleep regenerates us, for example; oblivion, viz. forgetting a problem, might help us re-solve it. The term ‘solution' itself shows that in order to transform a problem we must abandon the ‘coagulated' forms previously used and reduce everything to a liquid and shapeless status from which the ‘solution' will emerge.
Oblivion often brings us close to our animal instinct and very deep sleep causes the regression to the mineral status. Those heads, bones, feet and hands represented in the card express the bonds that tie the Person to the physical, astral and ethereal body; they are the bonds with the forms of thought created by our minds, the illusory attachments that link man to people, things, ideas, roles and functions, even to his own ego. In order to progress, these bonds must be broken and the remains must putrefy to make room for what must be born and to nourish it. Therefore the sickle of the Death has the task to cut the bonds, to free us from the images that we filled with our energies, from the ghosts of the mind: personality, social role, identity. All the identifications, even with the body, must be abandoned by the wise man that looks for himself and the truth.
The same is true for the alchemist that is about to start the Work: he will have to die in the world!...
This truth is reminded to us every night by the regeneration that we experience through sleep, which is a ‘small death' during which we leave ourselves and contemplate ourselves from ‘the outside'. It is not necessarily true that this archetype of detachment, Death, has only negative aspects and that it only refers to bonds being broken. Indeed, the card of the Death can surround extremely positive stages of our lives. Who concentrates strongly forgets the world, who elaborates a loss forgets pain, who experiences a wonderful transformation forgets his attachment to the previous status… to die in oneself is a true art.
Oblivion, sleep and death must be seen as instruments that lead us, ‘ferry us' from a status of consciousness to another. Every difficulty in experiencing this archetype is an inappropriate attachment to things. So who is sleepless finds it difficult to forget the world; the impossibility to overcome a loss or an abandonment reveals a symbiotic relationship with the lost person, a neurotic dependence, the person that can't renew his own life when circumstances require it, shows a morbid attachment to his own social role and the rituality of daily ‘doing'. This attachment often leads to identify one's own being with the ephemeral characteristics of the façade personality that we use to interact, a result of chance and necessity.
The person that can't detach from his own house, his objects or old friends when it is necessary, has lost every contact with the Spirit that ‘blows where it wants'. The man who wants to follow the Spirit's indications must be evangelically poor, viz. willing to abandon any possession, even body and consciousness.
Death is the only possible door to be born from; it is an invisible threshold between two states of being: here we have Death, Sleep and Oblivion, on the other side Birth, Reawakening and Remembrance. Since the archetype of Death is connected to the reduction of things to the essential, by cutting dead branches and pruning the tree of our life, by eliminating what is superfluous because it doesn't correspond to the moment any more, to the ‘here and now', Death is often seen as a fire that devours all that nourishes it, as if the putrefaction of a man's body was the reduction to the skeleton, the structure that supported him in life. Death frees us from impurities and useless bonds of mind, psyche and body; it allows us to cross the threshold of higher states of consciousness.
Alchemy teaches us the art of using the fire in the Work to purify the Prime Matter and to join fixed and volatile, to spiritualize body and to give body to the spirit. Some alchemic texts seem to suggest that ‘mortifications' and ‘nigredo' must be sustained by a matter external to the alchemist, of a metallic nature. Other texts give the lasting impression that such transformations concern the alchemist himself, his soul, his body and spirit. I think that we can agree with both interpretations at the same time. Furthermore it is interesting that both in the alchemic tradition and in the great eastern and western religious traditions (Hebrew cabbala, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism) there is a reference to the ‘glorious and immortal body' of a subtle nature (which in Christianity is the body that the dead will receive on the day of their resurrection), where it will be possible to ‘transfer' one's consciousness. The construction (or activation) of this body of light is the objective that many alchemic texts, both eastern and western, have.
The ‘ascetic' energy of this card can be used not to transform a being, but to crystallize and make his present status eternal. It is the case of ‘energy vampires', those who support their vital energy by drawing energy from others, those who feed the ghosts of their minds rather than dissolve them. This is a reversed and morbid use of the archetype of death, largely used by avid people, those who are ruled by the attachment to the body and material things and would like to crystallize the status quo forever. Those who start on this obscure path are willing to sacrifice everything and to get rid of any superfluous bonds, just like it happens in the luminous paths, but the sacrifice of every affection is carried out in the name of greedy forms of thought that feed on the crave and gluttony of surviving, having more power and keeping the power already owned. This ‘asceticism' is a grotesque parody of the one practiced by the Children of Art. But let's leave the energy Vampires languish in their eternal darkness.