(To anyone who reads this post: Do me a favor and read it through to the end. The tone changes considerably over the course of twenty-nine hundred words.)
Tarot is not Wiccan.
Tarot is not Wiccan.
Say it with me one more time for luck, kids. Tarot. Is not. Wiccan.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. In my previous post, I mentioned briefly that I think of occultism as a language, and I think that analogy is quite apt.* Esoteric systems (and religious philosophies more generally) consist of sets of symbols that correspond to phenomena in our actual world. We use these symbols to interpret the world around us and to communicate our interpretations to each other. These symbols can also be used performatively, to try to get other people (or more generally, the external world) to do the things we want.
Each language, and each occult system, has a different flavor to it, a different feel. French is extremely nasal; German is extremely guttural. Tarot is grounded in a Western archetypal framework structured largely around the four classical elements, Western astrology and alchemy, and symbols associated with late medieval court life in southern Europe; feng shui (does that need to be capitalized?) is grounded in an Eastern philosophy that differs from the roots of Tarot in almost every respect.
And like languages, different types of esoterica branch into each other, influence each other, share similarities and can be grouped into families. English is a child of Latin.** And although speaking English can help with some simple cognates to Latin (any enlightened human can tell you what terra firma is), speaking English is not the same thing as speaking Latin. Nor is the language of the Caesars an all-access pass to being able to read Milton. The two are different.
The same is true of Tarot and Wicca. Tarot is an esoteric language–in my opinion, it’s the esoteric language, the one that transcends and encompasses all others–and so is Wicca. Wicca is the English to Tarot’s Latin, a metaphysical language that was largely the product of the symbols used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and a variety of other ceremonial magicians that came before good ol’ Mathers. But like English, it also contains traits of other “languages” that are generally considered less high-brow, forms of English folklore and low magic as the brutish German complement to the fancy Latin high magic of the Golden Dawn. The two have quite a bit in common: most notably, they share a boatload of elemental symbolism, and the main elemental tools of Wicca correspond roughly to the suits of the Minor Arcana in Tarot.
But as with English and Latin, there are as many differences as there are similarities. The elemental correspondences of Wands and Swords are swapped in Wicca, and Wiccan theology is heavily focused on a gendered form of dualism that’s largely absent in Tarot symbology. Esoteric Tarot, because it’s constructed in a system of Western Hermeticism, incorporates an almost exclusively Christian theology and a hierarchy of angels, demons, and spirits that is nowhere to be found in a Wiccan circle.
In other words, Tarot is not Wiccan.
Why do I go on such a prolonged rant? Two reasons. The first is that a lot of Wiccans use Tarot, seemingly without realizing that it’s a tool that predates*** and exists separately from their religion.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wiccans use Tarot. Like I said, I think Tarot is pretty much the end-all and be-all of Western occultism, and certainly of divinatory practices. Wiccans practice divination. It’s an essential part of the way their religion is structured. And if they’re going to divine, they’d damned well better be using the best tool available. (I was deeply upset once when I met a Wiccan High Priest who told me he’s “just not all that into Tarot”.) But I think it’s important to acknowledge where things come from. Wicca (and I acknowledge that in this instance, I’m speaking about Wicca as if it were some unified, centralized hegemon, which obviously it’s not; there are, of course, glaring exceptions to my generalization) has a bit of a tendency to rewrite history.
Wicca gets a lot of hate for this, and I think that hate is overplayed. I’ve seen and heard a lot of people complaining about Wiccans who claim that their religion is an unbroken survival of The Old Religion, but to be fair, I’ve never actually met a Wiccan who made that claim. Nevertheless, there is a bit of an atavistic tendency to blur the edges around Wiccan history, and Tarot gets caught up in this blurring. Almost all of the Wiccans I’ve ever met have spoken as if Tarot was an offshoot of Wicca, and as if Tarot symbolism was derived from Wiccan ideas rather than (in the sense of the Golden Dawn’s influence on early Wicca) the other way around. I think that attitude is a mistake, and it blocks people off from exploring the history of Tarot and the variety of influences that shaped the creation of this wicked pack of cards.
(Speaking of which, A Wicked Pack of Cards and any other book by Michael Dummett are excellent resources on Tarot history. Not only on the Golden Dawn, but also on everything that came before.)
My second reason for this post is more personal. It has to do with my own fricking religious outlook.
Any of you who are familiar with this blog (likely most of you) know that I have a sticky relationship with religion. I was raised in an aggressively areligious household, and I myself am a pretty hardcore atheist. But I also desperately need religion, myth, what-have-you in my life. That’s why I have a Tarot altar and something resembling a devotional polytheistic religious practice with my Tarot cards. I use Tarot, which I find deeply meaningful, to fuel that part of myself that needs religious/metaphysical/mystical discourse.
I think I’ve also mentioned before that I have a million and one issues with Wicca. There are some things about the religion that confuse and frustrate me (not least of which is that stupid fricking Wand/Sword elemental switch). But for everything that puts me off about Wicca, there’s something else that pulls me in. Slowly–very slowly–I have been coming to realize that some deep, deep, Freudian-tell-me-about-your-mother part of me is attracted to Wicca in a primal sort of way that I just can’t explain. (We’re talking limbic brain function, here.)
Since about the beginning of the year, I’ve been studying with a group of Gardnerian Wiccans near to me, and I absolutely love it. It inspires me. It fills me with wonder and joy. It feels right. And I am finally coming to admit to myself, no holds barred, that I really want to be Wiccan. (Moreover, I really want to be a Gardnerian Wiccan specifically. But we’ll not get too much into Wicca politics here.)
And that is an unpleasant and uncomfortable thing for an atheist to realize about himself. Especially as rabid an atheist as I am. (Was? I’ll get to that in a moment. We’re going to coin a phrase together.)
It’s also unpleasant because, in a way, I already have a religion. Or a spirituality, or whatever the hell we want to call it. I have the devotions I do with my Tarot cards. (For anyone who remembers my post on the work I’m doing with Temperance, it’s still going, and dear gods, is it frustrating. The shape of that work has changed enormously over the past couple of months, and now has to do with me learning how to be empathetic and care about other people’s suffering–which has never been one of my strong suits.)
And because, as we’ve discussed, Tarot is not Wiccan, I wasn’t really sure if I could blend those two religious practices. I wasn’t sure if bringing a Tarot pack into a Wiccan circle would somehow devalue the work I do with Tarot independently, or whether I would be able to rip my mind out of all the Kabbalistic structures I’ve gotten used to and habituate myself to a less intellectualized hoobedy-hoobedy. To revert to our linguistic metaphor, I wasn’t sure if learning English would require me to give up Latin.
As it turns out, it has not.
I’m not sure if I’ve spoken in great detail about some of the more personal work I do with the Tarot. I’m inclined to think I haven’t. So here’s a bit of a shakedown. In addition to making small offerings and twice-daily invocations and prayers, I also do pathworking. This is not a terribly uncommon practice in the Tarot world; essentially, it involves a practitioner mentally stepping into a Tarot card and conversing with the figures therein. You go have a conversation with the young lady in the Strength card and ask her how she tamed a lion–and if you’re doing it right, she’ll talk back to you and give you answers that surprise you. It will feel like your conscious mind is not responsible for the things that other figures in a Tarot pathworking say and do.
(For any of you who practice astral projection, the process is pretty much exactly the same.)
A couple of weeks ago, the Fool showed up unannounced. I hadn’t been planning to do a pathworking, but he was just… There. And he gave me a bit of a verbal beatdown. I’ll spare you all the details, but the general run of it was, “What the hell are you thinking? Of course you can put Tarot and Wicca together!” I was told in no uncertain terms not only that it was all fine and good to bring my two hoobedy-hoobedy practices together, but also that I was a complete idiot for having ever thought there was a conflict.
So, well… I’m Wiccan now. I mean, I’m Pagan, and I’m pursuing Wicca. I’m not a Gardnerian initiate, but I’m studying under a Gardnerian High Priestess and am hoping to be initiated somewhere down the line. I wear a pentacle under my shirt now (which you can see in the altar setups depicted above). And I’m even at a point where, if someone were to ask me point-blank what my religious affiliation is, I might actually say “I’m Pagan” instead of my usual “I’m not religious” party line. In short, I think Wicca is just the bee’s knees.
And that is so weird.
Because of course, being religious–and especially being Wiccan–is not super compatible with being an atheist. It’s possible, but it ain’t easy. I have sat in Wiccan circles and felt something that, subjectively, could only be described as the presence of the Wiccan gods (even though objectively, I could easily explain it away as the influence of alcohol, group excitement, and all that damned incense). I have experienced things that subjectively felt like magic (even though rationally, I can chalk them up to confirmation bias).
And while the hyperanalytical part of me wants to rationalize and categorize and explain everything away to nothingness, the religious limbic monkey-brain part of me just wants to have the experience. Especially because those experiences are proving more and more deeply meaningful to me. Monkey-brain Jack wants to tell Doctor Jekyll to just shut up and enjoy the crazed witch dancing. I can go through the experiences, and get spiritual value out of them, but when I keep halting myself and saying, “I felt that, too, but remember that I’m an atheist,” I lose the immediacy of those experiences. I lose the holy-crap-overwhelming-sense-of-the-immanent-divine that’s the reason I’m chasing Wicca in the first place.
So I’m sort of tabling my atheism for now. It’s not gone, and I don’t know that it ever will be. But for the purposes of all the Wiccan crap I’m doing now, and probably also for a lot of my Tarot stuff, too, I’m going to let the atheist snooze in the back of the lecture hall without really paying attention to what’s going on. I’m going to stop dissecting my mystical experiences (which means the atheist will definitely fail the lab component of whatever lecture course he’s taking) and just… Go for it.
For now, if I’m really hard-pressed by someone about whether I actually, literally, physically believe in the Wiccan gods I’m working with (and, because this is Wicca we’re talking about, whether I believe in magic), my answer will still be “no”. But unless the Spanish Inquisition comes looking for me, I’m going to tentatively call myself an “experiential theist”. (See? I told you we’d coin a phrase.) In other words, I’m allowing myself to have experiences with deity and magic and all that other crazy goop that Wiccans do (and that I seem to love), and I’m not questioning it to death. If I have an experience, I’ll acknowledge it as valid, work with it, and move on, but I won’t bother trying to explain it away. I’m going to stop with the obsessive, hand-wringing “yes-but” attitude that I had previously brought to all things occult.
After all, as the magnificent Gardnerians blog so eloquently put it in their most recent post, “How much logical sense does your witchcraft cosmology have to make in order for it to feel right for you? (The correct answer is none.)” I’m trying something new and branching out of the world of logical sense-making, into the world of feeling right. (Damn, but that’s scary.)
For the more theistically inclined among you, this probably seems like nothing at all, but I think the odd atheist in my readership will get just what a big deal this is to me. For a very long time, atheism has been a defining aspect of who I am, and although I’m not in any way ready to let go of it entirely, I’m getting serious enough about Wicca that that I’m willing to relax my chokehold on the atheist identity. I’m not sure where that’s going to end up taking me, but I can guarantee it will be somewhere new.
This has been a long, weird, rambly post. Sorry about that. I had a lot of swirling thoughts, and as is often the case, they didn’t form themselves into a linear narrative without a hell of a fight. I’m going to try to keep Wiccan crap off this blog for the most part; Jack of Wands is a Tarot blog, not a Wicca blog, and I want to keep it that way. Nevertheless, the work I’ve been doing in Wicca has been shifting my perceptions somewhat, and that has affected my work with Tarot, so I thought it merited at least this one post.
That’s always the way it is, isn’t it? In learning a second language, you gain new insight into your mother tongue, especially when the two languages are related. And by the time you get to language four or five, well, your mind is just about as open as it can be. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to that stage of crazy metaphysical-linguistic openness, but for now, we’re doing things gradually.
For those of you who braved all 3,000-odd words, I applaud and thank you. For those of you who didn’t, well, you’re not reading this, so I guess it’s safe for me to say “up yours”. (I jest.) Next week, look for a return to more conventional Taroty stuff. I have another deck review in the works, and after that I think I’d like to spit out a spread or two. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I think that’s all she wrote.
*Moreover, just as I have an overwhelming desire to learn all human languages, I’m possessed by a fascination with all shiny metaphysical systems the universe has to offer. I taught myself the basics of geomancy a couple of weeks ago. And I spent almost the entirety of one of my days off work this week reading about Enochian and Goetic magic. Neither of those systems particularly grips me–Enochian magic has all the ugliness of a blatantly made-up system (screw you, John Dee) plus the added ick-factor of feeling like one is working with an abacus, and Goetia is too overtly demonic for my taste–but it was fun to read about them nonetheless. I was desperately tempted to buy half a dozen books on each subject, just for the intrigue of learning about something new.
**After Latin slept around with just about every other language on the European continent. We don’t really know who our linguistic daddy is, but we do know that our Special Uncle Germany was around quite a bit when we were growing up, and always sent a card on our birthday. But I’m slipping into a metaphor that, while entertaining, does not serve the point I’m trying to make. So I return you to the initial stream of consciousness.
***Someone will give me hell for this claim, I’m sure.