by Jean-Michel David
What follows is a very minor modification of my opening presentation at the 2010 ATS Convention, held in July in Brisbane, Australia. The original was accompanied, or rather, itself accompanied, over a hundred different images to which I talked ‘to’. Having been asked to include it as part of a Newsletter, I finally do so, rather belatedly.
It is a presentation I had also long wanted to do – though the form it took was of course also in the context of the weekend we were about to have. The full title, ‘Two Uses of Tarot: the vatical and the sacral’ considered tarot as both a vehicle for the sacred as well as manteaic art.
These two forms seem in so many ways obvious: we do readings with tarot – in other words, we use it as a manteaicly or vatically; and we can see in many of the imagery what reflects the sacred.
Yet I’d like to take this a little more deeply – or at least somewhat differently to what we may be accustomed to.
Allow me to first paint a historical picture of the world in which were immersed those who brought to us these images as we now have them. It is a world that for many amongst us is no more. It is a world that has been at times described as porous: a world that the shaman still inhabits; a world that some amongst us, engaged within communities that may still accept such, we may also perhaps still in part inhabit. Yet it is a world that is rather difficult to explain to those who, conversely, live a buffered existence: our modern world is not one in which the spiritual and sacred permeates the everyday. It is not one in which, as we walk down the street, we engage with elementals of with fairies… and I don’t mean by these terms our friends who may refer to as ‘elemental’ or ‘fairy’.
Our world is not one with which we generally take for granted the co-habitation of angelic and devilish beings. It’s one in which rather the opposite is taken for granted.
If we take these images not so much as allegorical, nor as metaphors, nor symbolic, but rather as implicitly representational of the world permeating our very everyday existence, as well as, of course, representing an eschatological view, then the card images not only take on quite different characteristics, but also reflects a worldview that simply is no more for most people.
Our world is one that appears to be denuded of sylphs, salamanders, gnomes and undines, denuded of what Dionysius the Aeropogyte described as the spiritual hierarchies. For us, air becomes the movement of physical particles in motion; flames the ignition of a fuel; the earth mere compounds. Where each tree stands without its spirit; where we can walk the desert, deserted of spiritual beings – whether these be as companions or as combatants.
This is the modern world, the buffered environment, in which we tend to reside, where even our thoughts and feelings are deemed our own and sheltered from view from others – unless we happen to either consciously or unconsciously reveal these, purposefully or accidentally.
By contrast, imagine – and I say imagine if you’re not living in it – a world in which each thought and feeling becomes something to which the inhabitants of the invisible world react to and respond, pick up and deliver…
In such a world, there is what has sometimes been called a great chain of Being – with a hierarchy of beings. A hierarchy in terms of not only power, but also (or instead) development, awareness, care, responsibility, and virtue – in that each of these terms applies to the state of each being in this great chain or hierarchy.
In many ways, tarot’s trumps can be seen to reflect this ‘great chain’ – with earthly stations, followed by allegories, followed by the trans-earthly realm… and all embedded within a world that is essentially spiritual.
The sacral – or sacred – can thus be seen to be nothing other than, in the first place, depicting the world permeating us, or in which we are ourselves embedded, as essentially sacred.
By contrast, in our modern and buffered world, the sacred, like everything else, is partitioned and allocated its peculiar enclosure: a pointed to there (wherever ‘there’ happens to be in both space and time, and oft some structural form such as synagogue, temple or church) is where the sacred is.
I mention time… and here is another concept that has vastly altered since time became standardised to, in the first place, allow for train timetables across the USA. It’s simply not the case that an hour’s drive west of here will be a local hour’s difference away: noon reflects the Sun at its meridian, and this changes as we move east-west. In the fast-paced world of telephones, of course, we don’t want time to be porous to either the influence of the Sun’s location, nor to the state of conscious awareness we happen to be in at the time! (yet, we cannot totally remove the Sun’s apparent location, so we ‘standardise’ and digitalise time into zones, and then additionally force Summer-time clock shifts).
Time is also now principally linear: what was two thousand years ago is past. In the porous universe, however, the event of two thousand years past recurs: it is circular… not just by correlated calendrical reference, but rather as a spiritual reality: the event of the past lives and breathes anew each Easter, each Solstice, each Yom Kippur.
To call this the ‘circularity’ of time is perhaps not such a useful term, as what is at play is rather that the repetition unveils the spiritual influx at especial play at those times.
We may get an inkling of this when experiencing the depths of feeling: for example, when falling in love, or when experiencing trauma, or when suddenly awake within a meditative space. Time gains a different dimension to the clock’s mechanical measure.
These are all at play in the depiction of each and every card, and during the course of this coming sessions, some of these aspects will, in various ways, become ever more apparent.
Let me, however, give two brief kinds of examples as to how both sacral and vatical intermix – and then I’ll separate these terms again before finishing.
Let’s first have a very brief look at first, Death, and then, Love – not-withstanding the connection made between these in the French language both in terms of its sexual climax as well as by what is called the ‘language of birds’ – ie, homophony.
Let’s first observe one amongst hundreds of sets of the Dance of Death – the dance macabre.
But also, as we look through it, let’s reflect on how this shows us its face – for again we tend to live in a buffered universe, with, for us, two pillars marking the beginning and the ending of life.
Not sure about you, but seeing these shows those pillars to be but door posts..
Also observe how the social stations of all and sundry were shown – again the chain of being, this time showing its well-structured microcosmic reflection here on Earth.
I suggest looking through this [partial] set again.
Let’s reflect on how the death of someone can variously be felt.
In the earlier, porous, instance, it’s our common death. When you die, something in our community passes away and dies. It is not simply that ‘you’ die, but rather that the current ‘we’ dies and has to establish itself anew. ‘The King is dead, long live the king’ gains, in this way of thinking, an entirely different sense to focussing on the individuality of the person: the community shifts and allows the social chain of being to become complete again. WE are dead, and we are coming to a new life… again, a very porous self is reflected in this understanding. The Shaman ‘feels’ the death of the community with a single person passing through the gates of life and death. And that community’s re-emerging – with the person dead now ‘simply’ accupying a new position within the connected porous chain.
In a different, a little more modern, way of viewing it, but still not quite contemporary, the individual, the me, dies… thus ‘me’ has a need for the community to support me in my journey yonder: the world has become semi-porous, in that the reality of spiritual beings is ever present, but at arm’s length.
In the buffered world, in our world it is simply the you that seems to die – the ‘you’ upon which so much was invested. You are no more. The relationships cease, and only remain in memory. Hence the need to celebrate the life that was. Of course, as I said earlier, many of us do not solely live in a totally buffered world – yet the norm and social view is that this is what the world is, and the sub-text is that we need to ‘grow up and come to grips with it!’
In the sacred engagement with death, there appears, at least for myself, a greater or more encompassing sense than just the relational ‘you’: it is each ‘me’, each ‘we’, that also sheds its life and transforms.
And you know, in all this, I have only hinted at the differences as to spiritual views, for what I have said thus far could easily be understood within a Buddhist or a Christian or neo-Pagan or Hermetic way.
Let’s look at l’Amoureux…
By the way, the reason I mentioned the close rapport between the two is that ‘l’Amour’ and ‘La Mort’ sound awfully close… and when uttered by some ‘paysan’ or country folk, would have been undifferentiable to outside ears.
Let’s consider this card – ostensibly of marriage.
Here I’ll begin by reflecting on some English friends of ours whose son recently married a Chinese woman. The cultures could have been other, it’s just an actual example.
At the wedding reception, each family group was somewhat horrified at the ‘insulting’ manner in which the other appeared to lack respect and honour the situation: the English spoke of THEIR – ie, the couple’s, new and independent fruitful and life-engaging existence; the Chinese spoke of the enriched and broadened unified family (or we would still say ‘familieS’) that now spanned across two continents.
Effectively, to the hearing of the Chinese, the English were sending them off on their own implying that they are not welcome as part and parcel of integrated family-community; and to the hearing of the English, the Chinese were now using the wedding of their respective children as a means by which to insinuate themselves into the buffered and private personal lives of others.
Certainly, of course, the arrow of cupid and the new marriage may be experienced rather as a lightning bolt to the existing home.
But there’s much more to the point I want to make.
It’s not so much that the new couple enter a new relationship with each other and with their community, but rather the inverse ways in which this can take place.
In the porous world, the community finds within its being a new space for the couple, and, indeed, love may even come after the development of the relationship. In the buffered world, the couple creates new communities as it establishes itself. To give an analogy from Kabalah – though this is using a porous-world description to account for the buffered one – the plenitude to the community undergoes tzimtzum: it withdraws and creates space for the establishment of the new couple.
This is, at least in part, also what the two families were faced with: the Chinese family spokesman was speaking on behalf of the community and asserting that they are welcome in the now expanded world of the co-joined community and that due space will be provided; in contrast, the English family spokesman was speaking in recognition that henceforth they (the couple) will forge their own new and enriching inter-linked micro-communities.
Each was, in its own way, welcoming the couple as couple.
So what does this have to do with vatical and sacral uses of the tarot?
I’ll finish by answering this in three ways.
the ways in which the world is held as sacred will impact on the very meaning the imagery presented in the context of a reading. A sense of the differences between the social reality of various communities, heightened by a sense of the historical with regards to the way in which the imagery is presented, allows for both a reflection of its sacred content as well as to the ‘message’ it presents.
meditative or contemplative work on any of the cards requires that, again, not only its historical context be delved into, but also how such imagery may have instructed in a world that was held in a far more porous way than is our own.
there is both the combined manner in which manteic or vatical use, ie, readings, becomes itself sacred act – sacred with regards to those with whom one has a sacred engagement; as well as the flipside of the same coin, the union between the way that reflection upon the card’s meanings becomes, as sacred act, a mantaeic art towards the transformation of the heart – metanoia – towards theosis.