For me, the link between tarot and mythology has been tenuous at best. I know this is a strange thing to say. The mythology of the tarot is just beneath the surface of cards like the Lovers, the Tower and the Last Judgement, but tarot as I’ve learned it exists in a tenuous place outside of traditional myth, in a kind of bubble of its own mythology, immersed in a cheap mystique of strip mall psychics, gothy high school art chicks. Add to that its historical association with characters like Aleister Crowley (“the wickedest man in the world” ) and its own dubious history and syncretic melding of an Italian card game with an obscure Jewish mystical sect at the hands of some loopy British spiritualists and it’s certainly difficult to speak on the tarot and be taken seriously.
It is a piece of neither the academic study of mythology and folklore nor an essential piece of any practice of craft traditions. This, combined with our cultural ambivalence towards its use as an oracle (along with our revulsion at the inclusion of such unsavory characters as the devil and the high priestess) has shunted the tarot into a strange place, being neither one thing nor another: It is a step-sister of the occult, too often thoughtlessly tossed in with its cousin the Ouija board as a parlour game not serious enough to be believed, nor artistically stringent enough to be enjoyed aesthetically. Certainly things are changing. There are more tarot decks and practitioners now than ever before, and pop tarot decks like the Super Punch Tarot, the Light Grey Tarot and dare I say the Chibi Tarot show a renewed artistic interest in the power of the tarot’s symbols and the way in which they can converse with pop culture.
But given where the the tarot’s come from, it’s clear why it exists on the fringes of serious mythological study, why Campbell and Jung mention the cards only briefly, as asides, if at all, despite the fact that the cards fit almost perfectly into their systems and reflect clearly the symbols that they deal with in such depth in the rest of their work.
So, because of the lack of existing ties between the tarot and popular mythology, it occurred to me to start creating my own. It was inevitable, I think, writing and drawing my own tarot deck and reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces simultaneously. So I did, but not in an academic way, which would tire me out quickly, but in the form of a simple game that can be played two ways, which I did with my wife on our walk around Capitol Lake yesterday.
The first way to play is to take any number of cards and put them together, then intuit what myth they represent. I’m currently only playing with major arcana, both because my knowledge of the minors and court cards is so limited and because majors represent larger, more common themes (though playing with someone like my wife who’s much more familiar with the minors and court is a great way to learn them). My first attempt that this by myself was the Tower and Judgement, which immediately spoke to me of Joshua and the battle of Jericho.
Playing with my wife on our walk we did the Empress and the Devil (Beauty and the Beast), the Chariot and the Moon (Peter Pan), and the Hermit and the World (every Christian monk story ever). The second way to play is to reverse engineer the first way: start with the story, then divine the cards. For Goldilocks and the 3 Bears I chose the five of coins. Little Red Riding Hood was the Empress, Strength/Devil and the Emperor.
It’s an interesting and stimulating way to combine the tarot and mythology in a way that’s accessible and immediate, and doesn’t require anything beyond our own store of stories and our knowledge of the tarot.
So what combinations come up for you? What stories to you always see tarot cards in?