Gods, Tarot, and Therapy

An experience with the tarot this week exemplifies nicely how modern paganism, ancient religion, and psychotherapy can flow together.

I currently use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck. Eight days ago I drew the Magician, which for me is mostly an excellent card: it suggests intellectual versatility and breadth of vision, emotional vitality and poise, and “spiritual” depth (i.e., loosely, the feeling that life is meaningful and worth living). Then six days ago, and again yesterday, I drew the 7 of Cups. This for me is mostly a terrible card: the spiritual blue and intellectual yellow of the Magician are drowning in sickly yellow-green flows falling from sepulchral flowers, which then fall into a green-brown mire. (Or are columns of the mire rising toward the cups?) Anyway, it suggests an eruption of biological needs and sexual drives, which is intellectually and emotionally experienced as dangerous putrefaction. Twice in a row. No surprise: I had suspected the Magician signaled volatile, ungrounded sublimations. To round out this picture, I then drew a second card, the 9 of Swords. For me, another terrible card. Nine bloody, chipped swords thrust stubbornly in the same direction. This is a narrow-minded, self-harming purposefulness.


Of course, the foregoing (abbreviated) readings are personal to me, and so is the meaning-making synthesis at which I have currently arrived. Without getting into uncomfortable details, let’s just say that the Magician arrived 2 days into a solid week of unusually harmonious mental flourishing, which manifested itself in somatic wellbeing as well. This week followed a number of significant events, one of which was a spectacularly elaborate dream about which I commented to my analyst, “If I were reading my life as a case history, I’d expect next to read, ‘At this point the patient began to recover.'” But mental wellbeing is a lifelong pursuit, not something to be achieved once and for all.  In different ways, the 7 of Cups and the 9 of Swords recall precisely the issues whose resolution the dream seemed to presage. In other words, the prospect of improvement can actually exacerbate the symptom.

Is that right? I belatedly realized — with some help — that the sign on the 9 of Swords is Mars/Ares, and that on the 7 of Cups is Venus/Aphrodite. (The Magician is also Mercury/Hermes, by the way.) This points toward the possibility of a healing union of complementary forces, which most neopagan readers will read in Jungian and astrological terms. For me, they instead point more toward the ecosystems of ancient cult.

Take the single example of ancient Argos. On the road leaving town there was a small temple. In the western doorway, facing the city, was a crude wooden icon of Aphrodite; in the eastern one, facing away, was an equivalent icon of Ares (Pausanias 2.25.1). Here you have an oppositional complementarity: public activity and aggression towards outsiders, but reconciliation and harmonization before returning home. It’s an arresting symbolism. But the complementarity of these gods is more complicated. Inside the city they celebrate a festival called Hubristika or “Outrages” on the new moon in the month Hermaios. It’s a suspension of normal order, among other things characterized by cross-dressing. The Argives associated it with a myth that explained dedications in temples of Aphrodite and Enyalios (another war god) inside the city.  So Aphrodite and Ares can be spatial “switches” toward different modes of being as you pass through the external shrine in opposite directions, but they can also cooperate in a chronological “switch” that opens up a carnivalesque interval when the moonlight is weakest. The specific new moon involved is that of Hermes, himself a god of passageways — and the spirit of the Magician card.

What is the upshot of all of this? Well, it provides a therapeutically powerful system of symbols not only for understanding the last week’s experiences, but also for thinking about positive forward steps. But aren’t I just “making up” fortuitous connections? On the one hand, obviously yes: the cards are not a magical engine that delivers up its meaning to me as a passive receiver. On the other hand, no: these multivalent free associations, the seedbed from which meaning can grow, are “out there” in the esoteric tradition of tarot, in the literary and epigraphic records of ancient religion, and of course in the material, spatial, sensory and kinesthetic supports for my own reading habits.

On the temple outside of Argos, see Pausanias 2.25.1; on the Hubristika, see  F. Graf, “Woman, War, and Warlike Divinities,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 55 (1984) 245-54);  for all things Aphrodite, indispensible is V. Pirenne-Delforge, L’Aphrodite grecque: Contribution à l’étude de ses cultes et de sa personalité dans le panthéon archaïque et classique (Liège: Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique)


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