I’ll be straight with you. I’m not a terribly religious person. In fact, “flaming atheist” is probably the most accurate description that can be provided of my religious views. Throughout the course of my (admittedly short) life, in good times and in bad, I have never felt compelled to seek the divine.
But at the same time, I was raised with a near reverence for the power of the human psyche. Brought up on a steady diet of Jung, I was always taught to look within myself and try to understand the forces at play in my own mind. And I came to believe, though I was never explicitly told so, that these forces are just as powerful–just as sacred–as any force of nature or any god that men have ever revered.
This is what I see in Tarot. In these seventy-eight cards, I see a microcosm of the human psyche, reflecting back to me the psychodrama that plays itself out within myself and in the world around me. Exploring that microcosm, and trying to understand the macrocosm through it, is the primary goal of my personal Tarot practice. In many ways, I think you could say it’s the closest thing I have to a religion.
And so, quite a while back, I decided to further this practice by creating a physical stage dedicated to the players of that psychodrama. I made a Tarot altar.
My Tarot altar has lived through a few different incarnations, but the picture above is the most recent. (A former altar featured a pretty red placemat as an altar cloth, but alas, this setup is just plain wood for now.)
The altar has a few main features, which don’t really change:
- A dedicated central space for my daily draws. Today’s card (or rather, the card of the day when I’m writing this, which is not actually the same as the day I’ll be posting it) was Judg(e)ment* from the Universal Waite Tarot, although I tend to cycle through my decks pretty regularly.
- Representations of the four suits of the Minor Arcana. On the right, I have a wand that I whittled myself when I was ten years old and a wineglass purchased from the dollar store down the street. On the left, there’s a pile of coins (all foreign currency) for the suit of Pentacles and a pair of knives for the suit of Swords. In my defense, I didn’t actually have a badass-looking sword just lying around, and I feel like a Swiss Army Knife conveys the idea. (And incidentally, the smaller knife–the one with the brown handle–is the one I used to whittle the wand.)
The grouping of the suit-representations on the left- or right-hand side of the altar seems significant to me, somehow. In previous versions, I had the wand and the coins (the two suits I consider masculine, although that’s deviating from tradition) on the right, and the cup and pseudo-sword on the left. But here, it just didn’t look aesthetically good that way. That wand is just too damned big, and it threw the balance of the whole altar to the right. This way looked better to me, so I went with it.
- Candles. I’m a fan of candles. When I absolutely must, I make do without, or with a limited number, but I prefer to have three. One on the right-hand side for solar/masculine energy, one on the left for lunar/feminine energy, and one in the center dedicated to my card of the day.
- A copy of my version of the Tree of Life. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with using Kabbalah in Tarot. It actually does factor into my personal practice to a great extent (and I’m considering writing a post or two about it at some point**), but I find a lot of it–and the people who use it–rather dogmatic, and I confess I have no issue cutting away at the tradition where it suits me. The Tree of Life is a perfect example of this. I love the idea of the glyph, but have always had major issues with the way it’s structured, so I do all of my work with an alternate–that is to say, better–version.
This diagram is that version. (You’ll note, if you can read it clearly enough, that the word “Judgment” is spelled with only one E, as is appropriate.) I drew it up to put on my first Tarot altar, and it has been with me ever since.
You may notice that my altar structure closely resembles a Wiccan setup. This is no accident. For one thing, there’s a strong overlap between Wicca and Tarot; the four suits of the Minor Arcana are magic(k)al tools of Wicca (although Wiccans swap the air/fire attributions of Swords and Wands, which I will never understand), and a significant portion of readers (I’m tempted to say a majority) follow a paganesque path. The respective symbolisms of the two systems are so close as to be nearly identical.
Aside from the basic, standard, straight-out-of-the-box Wiccan altar structure, I’ve added a few personal embellishments. There’s nothing particularly sacred about these last items, but they help mark off the territory as mine. And since this altar is about me setting aside time for introspection and an examination of the psychological microcosm, it seemed appropriate to personalize it a bit–even if not with the most spiritual of odds-and-ends.
In the top left corner, I have a few tchotchke souvenirs gathered from some of my travels. The Eiffel Tower is, of course, from Paris. In front of it are an elephant from India and a four-faced head, which is a replica of those found in the temple of Angkor-Wat in Cambodia. The box is a puzzle box with the flag of Oman. The seashell (as you can make out from the carving, if your eyes are good enough) is from Tahiti, and next to it is a very small bronze tiger whose origins I don’t actually remember. The dragon coaster is from Wales, and in the bottom of the frame, you can see the famous peeing-boy statue from Brussels and the top of a small bell from Turkey.
This is just a small sampling from my travels, but each of these items is a memory that makes up an important part of who I am. And each time I step up to my Tarot altar, I am reminding myself of that identity. Tarot is great for accessing the enormous, transpersonal themes of human existence, but I’ve always felt that an individual mind is more than just the sum of those themes: it’s the concatenation of the transpersonal and the personal, synthesizing both universal and individual experiences. My Tarot altar may be largely about accessing the universal, but it wouldn’t feel right to ignore the individual.
I also have a large-ish bust of Vlad Ţepeș, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Dracula. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s the historical Wallachian monarch who fought back invading Ottoman forces and upon whom the fictional Dracula is supposedly based.
In the words of the Eagles, “he had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude”. Ţepeș is an interesting historical figure surrounded by controversy. There are lots of fun and gruesome stories about him, and historians are unable to make up their minds as to whether he was an unforgivable tyrant or a good (if harsh) leader. Personally, I think he probably wasn’t a great guy to spend time around, and I wouldn’t say I admire him. But I keep him on my altar as a reminder: that cruelty is a fundamental, if unpleasant, part of the human soul, but that it is neither the only part nor the most important one.
And finally, I have two crystals and two bones. I’m not really a crystal sort of person, and to be frank, I only have these crystals on my altar because I like them. I don’t really feel like they add anything spiritual or magical to the environment of the altar.
The white crystal is a chunk of quartz I found while mountain climbing in the Sierra Nevadas, about as big as my closed fist. I’m from the West Coast, and I keep this crystal because it reminds me of the mountains and my home. The other one is an egg-shaped lump of something that looks like turquoise, although I don’t actually know if it is. I’ve had that egg since I was a very young child. When I was a kid, I convinced myself it was a dragon egg, and carried it with me everywhere I went in the hopes that one day it would hatch. (Part of me, I think, is still waiting.)
If you refer to my Tree of Life diagram above, or if you’re vaguely familiar with the Queen Scale of Color in Kabbalistic practice, you can see that the color blue-green is linked to the Death card in the Major Arcana. So having this lump of rock on my altar serves a dual purpose. It reminds me of my childhood and the child that still lives on within me, but it’s also a link to Death and the knowledge that all things–even that remembered childhood–must pass away eventually. I like the imagery.
And finally, in keeping with the Death theme, I have two jawbone fragments, one from a seal and the other from a deer. These bones may or may not have been acquired outside of the US and may or may not have been brought into the country without alerting customs. I can’t rightly say, although I can affirm that the creatures they belonged to have been dead far too long for any disease agents to survive on the bones. Once again, these fragments serve a dual purpose. They remind me of my travels and of all there is to see in the world, but they are also a persistent reminder of Death.
It’s interesting to me that Death should play such a large role on my altar. In my reading style and practice, and in the way I live my life, I really wouldn’t say that Death is the most important card to me, nor even one of the most important. But somehow, on this altar, it feels right. I built this space to honor the individual mind, but that mind is, in its very nature, fleeting. To pretend to eternity would be to willfully ignore the essence of what being human is. Tarot may allow me to touch the transpersonal, but at the end of the day, I want to remember that I am still a man. And mankind is transient.
Enough of that. I’ve rambled on for far too long, so I’ll bring this post to a close. What did you think of my Tarot altar? Have you ever done something similar? Questions, comments, snide remarks? All are welcome. Otherwise, I’ll catch you next time.
*I really hate spelling the word “Judgment” with an E stuck in after the G, but in the picture you can clearly see that such a spelling is used on the card itself. So I felt obliged.
**Would this be interesting? Kabbalah can sometimes be… Overanalytical. I know most non-Thoth Tarot readers couldn’t give a damn about Kabbalah, and frankly my intention with this blog is not to make people’s eyes glaze over, regardless of how interesting I, personally, might find the subject matter.