“Aristotelian” Shadow Work (And A Tarot Spread)

I spend a disproportionate amount of time on this blog talking about the Major Arcana. This is, perhaps, unsurprising–the Majors represent the big, shiny, sexy themes of human existence, so they make for great blogging material–but it’s also a bit of a pity. After all, the Minors constitute 72% of the Tarot deck. There’s a lot of good material in there that merits discussion.

In my previous post on shadow work, I casually mentioned that I think the false and unhelpful dichotomy of “light” and “dark” should be replaced by a model of shadow work based on the four elements (and, by extension, the four suits of the Minor Arcana). Each of the four elements represents a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and a successful person needs to have qualities belonging to all of the elements. If someone has a ton of Air/Swords in their life but is not so good at managing Water/Cups (*cough*me*cough*), then they need to work at increasing the Cupsy energy in their life to bring everything back into balance. The same goes for someone who lacks strength in Fire/Wands, and so on.

This understanding of the human mind is deeply Aristotelian.* It’s about finding a happy mean in our behavior between the extremes to which we might be naturally inclined. Some people are naturally hot-headed (too many Wands), so for them, shadow work would be about bringing in Cups to temper that anger. Other people are naturally avaricious (too many Pentacles), so for them, shadow work would be about boosting the thoughtful prudence of the Swords. And so on.

But what’s key here is that the things I need to do in my shadow work might be completely contrary to the things you need to do. If I’m naturally inclined to overthink, and you’re naturally inclined to underthink, then the processes by which we bring our respective selves into balance will be complete opposites. I will be working to reduce the very tendencies in myself that you’re trying to encourage in yourself, and vice versa.

Why and how is this the case? Well, for Aristotle, virtue (arete in Greek; also translateable as “excellence”) is all about moderating between extremes. It’s all very Goldilocks. A virtuous or excellent man** will be neither too rash nor too timid, but somewhere just right in between the two. He will be neither too social nor too solitary; neither a spendthrift nor a miser; neither a coward nor a courageous fool. You get the idea.

But because each of us is an individual with an individual personality, we find that mean in different ways. He compares men** aiming at virtue with archers aiming at a target. The target is the same for everyone, but some men are taller than others, or have longer arms, or are left-handed instead of right-handed. Consequently, each archer will have to aim differently in order to hit the same target. In similar fashion, Aristotle suggests that even though virtue is the same for everyone (i.e. a balanced personality), each person will have to “aim” differently in order to achieve it.

Here’s a simple Tarot spread to get you started with what I’ve spontaneously and anachronistically decided to call “Aristotelian shadow work”. It starts out with four cards representing the four elements. Air is on the right, Fire on the bottom, Water on the left, and Earth on the top.

Aristotelian shadow work 1
Clockwise from right: 10Wrx, 3C, XI (Strength), KW.

Now, stop and look at the cards you have in each position. Do any of them match their elemental dignities? That is to say, do you have a Sword in the Air position, a Wand in the Fire position, a Cup in the Water position, or a Pentacle in the Earth position?

If you do, then great. That element is “fixed” for you. That card represents the way you manifest arete in the elemental qualities of its suit. If you don’t, that’s fine, too; it just means you have a little bit of work to do to bring out the best of yourself in that particular domain.

Aristotelian shadow work 2
After my second pass, I had Earth fixed: KCrx, 6Prx, 2Srx, 7Prx.

Now go around the spread (clockwise, starting on the right). For each element that you don’t have fixed (i.e. where the card’s suit doesn’t match the position’s element), turn up a second card. In my sample spread, I didn’t have any fixed cards, so I turned up four more.

Once you’ve done this, evaluate again to see whether you have any fixed cards. And then repeat the process. Keep going until you have all four elements fixed (or until you run out of cards, which is a distinct possibility considering the way this spread is designed).

Aristotelian shadow work 3
The final spread: NS, 2W, 2Crx, 7Prx. More in the Air pile than anything else; I had to squish the stack to get it to fit in frame.

At this point, you have four sets of cards of varying sizes. Each set is a shadow work Tarot reading for you, exploring what you need to do in order to achieve arete in a particular elemental quality. The first card you turned up represents where you are now with regard to that elemental energy. The last card–the one that fixes the stack–represents the virtue you will eventually be able to manifest. And all the cards in between represent the steps you need to take, and the changes you need to make, in order to get from point A to point B. The more cards there are, the longer and harder the process is going to be, and the more change and growth it will require.

If you get four readings with things you need to change in your life, and some of those readings are massive and daunting (see my Air stack up above), good. Self-improvement is a difficult and daunting business. It should be at least the tiniest bit scary. Anyone who promises you a 15 minute shadow work webinar that will immediately fix all of your problems without bloodshed is either lying or delusional (and frankly, I don’t know which I consider worse). Shadow work involves confronting the unactualized parts of your psyche, finding the places where there is a lack and then working to build yourself up in those places.

In other words, it is hard work.

But it’s also important. And incredibly rewarding when you make a breakthrough (or at least, so I’m told).

Let’s take a look at my sample reading here. Astonishingly enough, it looks like things are pretty straightforward for me on the Earth front. Only two cards. (Actually, I suppose it’s not that astonishing. Even though I’m not rolling in cash these days, I at least know where I’m going to be living and what I’m going to be doing for the next five years or so, and I have a stable source of income. My health is good. Earth is not generally a source of stress.) My Swords, on the other hand, are an utter mess. It took me nineteen cards before I turned one up that fixed the Air stack.

Nineteen cards.


This is not the kind of thing one deals with in a day. Or a month. Or a year. This reading is forecasting a years-long process of personal growth for me, which I expect will be difficult and often extremely unpleasant.*** But it’s also work that I know I will need to do, and even though this spread is terrifying, I think it offers an understanding of the big-picture changes that need to take place.

A final note: The way I’ve designed this spread, it is altogether possible that you’ll spin out all 78 cards in the deck and one or all of your elemental stacks will remain unfixed. If this happens, you’re not ready to start shadow work just yet (and that’s fine). Shadow work, when taken seriously, is a huge commitment, and it’s perfectly okay not to be in a place where you can take that on. If you perform this spread and you can’t fix your elements, take a step back and sort through your life on a smaller scale. If you have any problems in your life that are urgent (but maybe less important in the grand scheme of things), deal with those first, and then come back to this spread when you have room to breathe.

As always, if you use this spread, let me know how it goes! And good luck with plumbing the depths of your minds. As we can all clearly see, I have a fair bit of work of my own to do.

*Although of course the idea of “shadow work” as a self-improvement practice is anything but Aristotelian. Also, I should nod to my High Priestess (the leader of my coven, not the Tarot card), whose emphasis on elemental balance has been a major influence on the thinking behind this post.

**Pardon the sexism in my use of the default male, but Aristotle was a flabby old misogynist and he genuinely did not believe that women were capable of virtue. I disagree with him on this point.

***By the way, all of the sample readings I put on my blog are actual readings that I perform for myself. They’re not staged. This is an actual reading that I did for myself with this spread, and my stomach just about dropped out of the world when I saw that Air stack.


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