Tradition and Innovation

I have a complicated relationship with the Hierophant.

Truth be told, I think most Tarot readers do. The Hierophant is dogma. He represents tradition, the kind of authority that expects us to submit ourselves without question. He is a fear of innovation and a desire for permanence and stability in the world–the powerful need to have nothing ever change.

Tarot works in cycles; the deck is structured in such a way that we understand everything in our lives as temporary, destined to come to a close at some point and give rise to something new. We see this in cards like the World, where the beginning of a new cycle is intrinsically linked to the end of the old, as well as in the run-of-the-mill interpretations given for cards like the Tower (“This may represent a failure or a sudden change, but it’s just an opportunity for you to build again from the ground up.”) In the Hanged Man, we see the idea that all suffering is ultimately temporary, and the Wheel of Fortune reminds us that the same is true of all success.

In short, the Hierophant is alien to the Tarot. The concept of permanence, of immobility, of transcending these neverending cycles of beginning and end, sticks out in a Tarot deck. And not in a good way. I think this is a lot of the reason that many Tarot readers dislike this card so much. Yes, it can speak of dogma and closed-mindedness, which is certainly part of the issue; but on a larger level, the Hierophant appeals to a concept of eternity–without change–that’s absent in the rest of the deck.

The contrary of permanence is temporariness, and no card in Tarot better embodies the temporary nature of the world (and the inevitability of change) than Death. For this reason, I’ve always felt that these two cards go together. The Hierophant is stasis, and Death is flux. They balance each other, in that dualistic sense that underlies so much of the Tarot. Plus, astrologically, the Hierophant is Taurus and Death is Scorpio; they sit opposite each other on the wheel of the Zodiac, representing everything that is fixed in our world and everything that is destined to pass away.

Notice that the Hierophant himself makes an appearance in the RWS Death card. They’re linked, I tell you! Linked!

These two cards together encapsulate the way I tend to think about tradition in all aspects of my life, but in Tarot especially. I confess, I am a tradition-minded reader. I like to work within a structure and a framework of general consensus about what the cards mean, and if Death shows up in a reading, you can bet your bonnet I’ll be talking about change. I’m not one of those intuitive readers who will draw this card, look at the ship in the background, and predict that the querent will be travelling soon. It’s a perfectly valid form of reading, based more on specific imagery and intuition than on the tradition (there’s the thousand-dollar word) of Tarot, but it’s very much not how I read.

I like structure. And I like to be able to take a card and say that it represents a certain theme based on the way it has been interpreted by thousands of Tarot readers before me. And in that sense, I am very much susceptible to the stability-seeking influence of the Hierophant. But I also like innovation, and moreover, I think that tradition is useless if we stick to it without knowing why we do so. For a very long time (until I read the Sepher Yetzirah), I didn’t use the astrological attributions of the cards, because I couldn’t for the life of me see why the attributions ought to be the way they are. And for a long time I thought to myself, “Maybe these correspondences need to change.”

That’s Death coming in: I understand, respect, and in many ways desire tradition, but I also have no problem dropping it by the wayside if I decide it doesn’t make sense or it’s not for me. And the important thing, I think–as in all things Tarot–is to appropriately balance the two.

It’s important to be able to let go of traditions that don’t work. Otherwise, Tarot readers would be consulting their LWBs for every reading, unable to move beyond the limits of, “Well, the book says this card means new money coming your way. Your question was about whether or not you should call that guy you met, so, um, I guess if you call him then new money will come your way?” It’s okay, and often necessary, to put to rest the things that other people have taught you, and to build your own personal understanding of Tarot cards instead. But without some element of tradition–without grounding ourselves in the external reality of what others have done before us–that innovation is meaningless. The energy of the Death card only works when there’s some preexisting idea for us to bid goodbye; moreover, Death is only useful when that idea has outlived its purpose and it is time to move on. Abandoning tradition and reading by the seat of your pants is (personal opinion) useless if you haven’t already tried to understand and work with that tradition.

This is the age-old practice: You can break the rules, as long as you know you’re doing so. It’s perfectly fine to color outside the lines of traditional Tarot reading, but doing so serves no purpose if you don’t know that the lines are there (and moreover, why they’re there). You have to know the tradition, understand it, and be a part of it before you can separate yourself from it in a meaningful way.

So this is my take on the dichotomy of the Hierophant and Death in Tarot reading. Take a little bit of one and a little bit of the other, but start with the Hierophant and progress to Death as needed. I would advise any reader who comes up against a tradition they don’t like or don’t understand to really dig in to that tradition. Take as much time as you possibly can and study that tradition until you do understand it. Until you see all of the logic behind it and you’ve heard every possible argument for why that tradition is valuable. Let the Hierophant live, and listen to him as he preaches permanence. Only once you’ve heard the whole sermon can you confidently decide whether it’s time for his tradition to meet with Death.

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