I’ve written a couple of times before about the devotional work I do with Tarot. One thing I haven’t much discussed, though, is the notion of myth-making as it factors into my personal Tarot practice.
Religion involves myth. Before we have theology (and arguably before we have praxis) we have stories, which structure the things that we believe, say, and do. Religious practice stripped of mythology is all but meaningless; just imagine having Passover dinner stripped completely from the context of the story of Exodus.* When we, as outsiders, want to understand a religion, we (or at least I) start by looking at its stories. The same goes when we want to become insiders–want to start practicing a religion.** Religious experience isn’t just about doing and saying the right things at the right time, but also about having the myths that make those actions and words meaningful. Remember, kids: Context is king.
So where are the myths in my weird little niche world where Tarot and religion intersect? For those of you who are unfamiliar with my devotional Tarot practice, you can get the rundown here; the basic idea is that I work with the twenty-two Major Arcana in a manner similar to how devotional polytheists work with their gods. But remember, there can be no religion without myth. So whence mythos?
The short answer: I make it all up.
I have a relatively consistent body of myths in my mind, built over time from personal experiences with the Tarot (largely in the context of pathworking and active imagination), book meanings, intuition, and an affinity for narrative structure. All of these myths are pure UPG. Most of them, however, are structured around a motif commonly accepted in the wider Tarot community, and popularized by Rachel Pollack: The Fool’s Journey.
In my mind, there is a full Homeric epic telling of the Fool, who set out to meet and wed the World herself–and who, in so doing, joined the ranks of the gods.*** I have story after story after story. These stories structure my devotional Tarot practice and give it meaning that it might not otherwise have. Today, I’d like to share with you one of my Tarot myths. [Please forgive the pretentious, flowery language that follows.]
This is a story as old as the world. It’s a story about a man without a name, the man who stole thunder from the sky and wore it upon his brow, the man who could speak every language and who knew the names of all things. It’s the story of the Magician.
This is a story that has never been told. It’s a story about a woman beyond time, the woman who sits in judgment of gods and men, the woman who keeps all secrets and knows all mysteries. It’s the story of the High Priestess.
But above all, this is the story of the Fool and how he came to be.
Long ago, in a time before time, in a place beyond the world, there was the Fool. The Fool grew up on a farm at the edge of a small village. He had no brothers and no sisters, and he saw nothing of the world beyond his village and his farm. But all his life, his mother had told him stories of what lay beyond the world he knew. She’d told him about the child who rode the Sun across the sky each day, and the silver palace of the Moon with wolves guarding its gates. She’d told him about a distant kingdom ruled by a loving Empress and a harsh Emperor. She’d told him about a pale knight who rode through the night, never sleeping, never eating, the face of Death himself hunting the souls of men great and small.
And the story that had captured the Fool’s fancy more than any other was the story of the World. She was the queen of the universe, and it was said that to know her was to know all the secrets thereof. (Little did the young Fool know that his own mother had once been the queen of the universe, and had abdicated her place on that throne long ago.)
One day, the Fool decided that he had seen enough of his small farm and his village. He needed to know more. He needed to see what lay beyond the life he knew. So he packed up a change of clothes in his rucksack, and he kissed his mother goodbye. And then, calling his dog to heel, he set out on the road to the West, to see for himself all the things he’d been told.
But the Fool, young and innocent as he was, was ill prepared for his journey. He hadn’t even thought to bring any food with him. And as the first day drew on, he became tired, and thirsty, and the hunger in his belly grew until he could think of nothing else. As night fell, the Fool saw a campfire lit at the side of the road. Bent over next to the fire was an old man, with knotted fingers and hunched shoulders.
“May I share your fire for the night?” the Fool asked. The old man smiled.
“And what will you give me in return?” he asked in reply.
The Fool spread his arms wide.
“I have nothing to offer you but my gratitude,” he said, “But of that, you can be assured.”
Now, unbeknownst to the Fool, the old man was actually a powerful Magician in disguise. The Magician looked into the Fool’s heart and saw that it was kind and pure, and he knew the Fool was destined for greatness. But he also saw something else: The Fool was naive and immature. He was not yet the man he needed to be in order to accomplish the things he was meant for. So the Magician resolved to help him.
“Please,” he said, “Join me.”
And they shared the fire for the night.
The next day, as the Fool was preparing to depart, the Magician gave him four gifts: A pentacle, a sword, a cup, and a staff.
“With this in your possession,” he said, holding up the pentacle, “You will never know hunger, sickness, or cold. With this sword, you may defend yourself, and on its point none may lie to you or do you harm. When you are thirsty, reach for this cup, and you will never find it empty; and all who drink from it shall become your trusted friends. And finally, take this staff to support yourself; with it in hand, you will never lose your way, and you will find that you have strength equal to any task set before you.”
The Fool took these tools, full of wonder, and thanked the Magician before they parted ways. But he did not understand the importance and would not use them properly. Seeing this, the Magician transformed himself into a bird and flew to the palace where his wife–a great High Priestess of the oldest gods, whose names are now lost to us–resided. He explained to her that a young man was coming her way, a man who was destined for greatness but who was unequipped for the trials that awaited him. And together they concocted a plan.
When the Fool arrived at the High Priestess’s temple, he found her sitting enthroned between great pillars of ebony and ivory. Behind her was a veil, marking the passage from the temple into the land of Death.
“All are welcome to cross beyond the veil,” she said to the Fool, “But none have ever returned, for the kingdom of the dead does not give up its secrets easily.”
But the Fool was nothing if not brave, so he bowed to the High Priestess and stepped past her into the land of Death.
The other side of the veil was bone-chillingly cold, and dark. The Fool gasped as the frozen air hit his lungs. He stumbled forward in darkness for a long time, not knowing where he was going. In the distance, he heard the cries of the dead. He felt skeletal fingers brushing against his sleeve.
But he tightened his grip on the staff the Magician had given him, and a bright Star appeared in the dark sky above him, guiding the way. He pressed on. After a time, he grew tired and hungry, so he stopped to rest. As he reached into his sack, his fingers brushed against the pentacle the Magician had given him–and the Fool found himself renewed, his weariness washed away, his limbs no longer numb from the cold. He lifted his chin, strengthened his resolve, and continued on his way.
Through the long night, the Fool walked, and just as the Sun was starting to rise in the east, he came to a river. It was so wide he could barely see the other side, so deep that he couldn’t see the bottom, running so fast that he feared to come too close lest he fall in and drown.
At the edge of the river was a knight on a pale horse, his face hidden by his helm.
“Drink,” the knight said, “And you will know the mysteries of my kingdom. But if you choose to drink the water of the dead, you may never return to the land of the living.”
The Fool hesitated, unsure of what to do. Finally, he pulled out the cup that the Magician had given him. He filled his cup with the water of the dead, taking care not to spill a single drop–for some instinct told him that would be disastrous. And then, balancing the cup in his hand, he pulled out his sword and leveled it at the knight.
“At the point of my sword you cannot lie, nor can you harm me in any way,” the Fool said, “I have taken from your river but not drunk from it. Will you permit me to go in peace? Or will there be bloodshed between us?”
The figure sat in contemplative silence for a long time, until the Fool’s arm began to grow weary. The Fool wanted nothing more than to drop his sword, but he kept it raised until the pale rider began to laugh. It was a cold, dry laugh–one that sent shivers up the Fool’s arms and down the back of his neck.
“Your sword cannot harm me,” the figure said, “I am the end of all things, and none who fight me win. But you may leave this place, for now. You will return to me in time, as all men must. As even the gods must.”
The figure fell silent. Unsure of himself, the Fool turned and began the journey back in the direction from which he had come.
All day he walked, under a grey sky. The Sun glowed like a hot coal above him, but gave no heat. Under its light, he saw the bones of a thousand dead bodies strewn across the wasteland. He picked his way between them until he saw two pillars rising up against the horizon–the gateway back to the temple of the High Priestess. Bracing himself, the Fool stepped back across the threshold between the worlds.
As he entered the temple again, he found the High Priestess still on her throne, but sitting at her feet was a young man. It was the Magician, no longer wearing his disguise. The two of them greeted the Fool and welcomed him back from the kingdom of Death.
“Did you find what you sought?” the High Priestess asked him.
The fool extended his cup to her.
“I found the waters of Death,” he said, “But I did not drink from them.”
The High Priestess smiled.
“Ah,” she said, “But here is the thing that you have yet to learn: The waters of Death are also the waters of life. Drink from them now, in my presence, and you set yourself on the path to becoming as one of the gods.”
She took a deep drink from the cup, then passed it to the Magician, who did the same. And the Magician passed the cup back to him.
“You have passed your first test,” the Magician told the Fool, “A great destiny is laid before you. The choice is yours. You may return home to your village and your farm, or you may drink and claim what is rightfully yours.”
The Fool drank.
He faced many more trials on his journey to meet the world, but this is the story of his first trial. This is the story of how the Fool came to be.
Once again, I apologize for the stilted language of the story. This is how I tell the tale in my own head, when there’s no one around to listen and I don’t have to worry about sounding like some middle-schooler’s dreadful attempt at Tolkien fanfiction. It’s rather difficult to tell myths in such a way that they don’t sound stilted; somehow the storytelling part of my brain associates “holy” with “bad writing”.
Regardless, I hope that the bare-bones structure of the story was interesting to you. It’s one that I find quite meaningful in my own practice. I don’t know if I’ll ever share other stories like this on the blog, but I wanted to do something different today.
*I was initially going to write “it ____ context”, with “____” being the adjective form of “Exodus”, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that word would be. Exodic? Exodian? Exodussy?
**This is part of the reason that my work with the Slavic pantheon has been so incredibly frustrating. Pre-Christian Slavs had no writing system, so we have no primary sources and very few secondary sources (all of which are written by Christian scholars who weren’t exactly impartial) on Slavic religion. Most of what those sources describe is praxis, not mythos; to get anything resembling Slavic mythology, we have to look at festivals and fairy tales and try to retroactively stitch something together. Add to that the presence of forgeries like the Book of Veles, and, well, the whole thing is a gargantuan undertaking.
***Yes, I consider the World card feminine, even though I know it’s meant to be (among other things) the divine androgyne. Once again, a lot of this is UPG. You don’t have to accept the story of the Fool marrying the World, and even if you do, that story doesn’t have to be gendered. But the heteronormative version of the story is how I constructed it originally, and it’s what works for me personally.