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A Bolt from the Blue

Updated: Mar 23

Following my June contribution to JCF's MythBlast essay series, a friend asked about Joseph Campbell's personal experience with tarot.

According to Campbell, his introduction to the tarot occurred in 1943, as friend and mentor Heinrich Zimmer discussed the symbolism of playing cards. Zimmer died unexpectedly soon thereafter, and Campbell didn’t give tarot much thought until 1967, when the subject came up during a Q & A session following a lecture at Esalen.

A few days later Campbell contacted his friend, Richard Roberts, an authority on tarot. Roberts offered to read Joe’s cards; the results were compelling enough that Campbell purchased three separate tarot sets (the Marseilles deck, an Italian deck, and what today is known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck). His exploration of their imagery prompted a collaboration with Roberts on a book about the symbolism of the tarot (Joseph Campbell and Richard Roberts, Tarot Revelations, 3 - 4).

However, Joseph Campbell’s interest was that of a mythologist. When asked whether he “believed” in the tarot, Campbell replied as follows:

No, I don’t do anything like that. I just see. I can show you how it works and what a beautiful thing it is. It gives you a program for life, what the concerns are in the different stages of life and what the spiritually lower and spiritually higher attitudes are toward the experiences of life at different stages (Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, 176).

In that same conversation, Campbell observed that tarot offers clues to “the mystery.”

Though he didn’t consult the tarot as a means of divination, Campbell did regularly contemplate the imagery of the cards, albeit in a most non-traditional way: Joe swam 44 laps in the Olympic-sized pool at the New York Athletic Club every day, keeping track of where he was by swimming two laps for each card of the major arcana!

What turned Joseph Campbell on about the tarot was its symbolism. Symbols are essentially images, whether visual or verbal, with a multitude of associations—personal and collective—compressed into each, conveying a broad range of meanings at once complementary and contradictory.

Take for instance, this month’s theme, Card XVI in the major arcana: The Tower.

Haindl Deck Copyright 1990 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

Most versions of this card depict a tower, struck by lightning, in the process of collapsing. In a tarot spread, The Tower is often assumed to signal danger, crisis, and destruction.

But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. A deeper understanding can be achieved by examining the many different facets of this image.

We encounter multiple types of towers in both history and myth. This of course includes watch towers that are part of defensive fortifications (“towers, turrets, and armed keeps”).

Then there are what I call “towers of power,” which are associated with either national prestige or economic power (from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to Wall Street skyscrapers in New York).

There are towers that serve as prisons: Rapunzel, locked up in a witch’s tower with no door and only one window; Gandalf, imprisoned atop the tower Orthanc at Isengard by the wizard Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; Prince Kamar al-Zaman, confined to an old stone tower in a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights; and then all sorts of historical figures, including Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even Guy Fawkes, who have been held captive in the Tower of London.

There are towers that serve as a refuge for introspection, separating one from the mundane concerns of the surrounding world. Examples include poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House on the California coast, the stone tower Jung built at Bollingen, and even the proverbial “ivory tower” of academia (though that last has morphed into a pejorative term today).

And then there are towers that serve as a conduit between heaven and earth, such as the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and the step pyramids of Mesoamerica, as well as church spires, minarets, and Buddhist stupas.

The ancient cities of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon, from whose mythological systems much biblical myth was derived, were organized roughly in quarters, with a towering temple of the presiding god at the center. This “height” or “ziggurat,” as it was called, at the summit of which heaven and earth came together, was symbolic of the axis mundi, the world center, where the vitalizing energy of eternity entered the revolving sphere of space-time—as known from the revolving night-sky (Campbell, The Mythic Dimension, 196).

The top of a tower offers a far-seeing, unrestricted view of the world around one – a powerful metaphor. However, a perspective that may at one time have been entirely appropriate can become constricted and confining when long-held beliefs no longer serve. Hence the lightning strike depicted on the tarot card, signifying an external event that heralds abrupt change.

When such rapid change occurs in our lives, it’s often experienced as disruptive and catastrophic. We all too easily grow comfortable with the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory. It often takes blowing up those prison walls before one is motivated to venture out into the unknown.

That lightning can take many forms. It might be the loss of a job, a humiliating failure, the death of a loved one, or any major life transition. This is always traumatic at first, as the only life one knows is irrevocably changed, but these events often anticipate the beginning of a new and more rewarding life.

In the myth of the Tower of Babel, that external change takes the form of God “confounding the language” so that humans building the tower, who previously spoke with but one tongue, can no longer understand one another – and so they end up scattered around the world. The resulting multiplicity of languages marks the end of the old order, and the beginning of the world we know today.

The mythical figure of Babel is in this connection doubly appropriate, since it was actually in the early city-states of Mesopotamia, ca. 3500 B.C., that the original foundations were laid of all higher (i.e., literate and monumental) civilization whatsoever; so that it was indeed from the Levant, and even specifically, those early temple cities of the towering ziggurats, that all branches of the one great tree of the four domains of civilization have stemmed (Campbell, Myths to Live By, 62).

Stepping away from myth and into the contemporary world, we witnessed this dynamic play out in its most tragic and concrete form with the 9/11 attacks that collapsed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In a matter of minutes, the long-held assumption of America’s impregnability dissolved; the old order disappeared as the United States realized it shares the same vulnerabilities to fanatical extremism as the rest of the world.

Given such examples from myth and modern life, it’s easy to understand the trepidation that greets the Tower card when it appears in a spread. That was certainly my initial reaction when first introduced to tarot many decades ago.

Fortunately, in the years since, my favorite mythologist has helped expand my vision.

In discussion of this card, Joseph Campbell references one of his favorite authors:

James Joyce, whose chief literary model was Dante, in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, lets the sound of a thunderclap represent the moment of the humbling of his hero’s pride . . . In Finnegans Wake, the fall from his ladder of Finnegan, the great builder of cities and towers, is to the sound of a hundred-lettered word composed of thunder syllables from many tongues: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” (Campbell and Roberts, 20-21).

And the next was a thunderbolt hitting a tower, the Tower of Destruction, which is . . . the tower of evil being smashed by the thunderbolt of God’s destruction of all of your tight ego-system relationships (The Hero’s Journey, 172-174).

Over the past thirty years I have indulged in tarot not to divine the future, but as a means of re-imagining and mythologizing my life. When I do draw the Tower card, instead of reading it as a harbinger of disaster, I take it as a prompt to ponder what I am holding on to that no longer serves.

But even in those rare instances when I pull The Tower as I happen to be experiencing major upheaval in my life, Campbell provides the guidance with which to face the inevitable:

Nietzsche was the one who did the job for me. At a certain moment in his life, the idea came to him of what he called “the love of your fate.” Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, “This is what I need.” It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment – not discouragement – you will find the strength is there (A Joseph Campbell Companion, 38).


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