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Around and Around

What, if any, is the value in consulting the tarot? In an age where the rational mind reigns supreme, all forms of divination would seem little more than the fading traces of archaic superstition. After all, how could anything so vague and subjective impart any useful information?

That question misses the mark. True, there can be no independent, objective meaning to a tarot card apart from the individual who draws it, but that’s a feature, not a flaw. The point of any oracle isn't so much to predict the future as to access the imagination by stepping outside the linear, rational constructs that prevail in our contemporary culture.

That perceived vagueness is why oracles work. It’s much the same way that two different people spy two different images in the same cloud, or in a single Rorschach inkblot; neither is either right or wrong—it's still a cloud, still an inkblot—but the patterns one sees there are projections of one’s own imagination. The same holds for horoscopes, tarot spreads, and other forms of divination: what we make out is a reflection of what we bring to the medium, those possibilities and concerns licking at the edges of perception, past, present, and future.

To repurpose as metaphor an insight borrowed from physicist Werner Heisenberg, the act of observation determines what is observed. Oracles serve as a mirror, bringing that inner world into sharper focus, offering an opportunity to reimagine and mythologize the circumstances of one’s life.

What the tarot, dream imagery, astrology, the I Ching, and other oracles all have in common is a rich trove of symbols, images layered with polymorphic meanings (the same symbols and motifs that surface in mythology), in combinations that both mirror the present moment and correspond to those patterns in the human psyche that Jung terms archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Joseph Campbell’s explanation of how to read the I Ching fits all forms of divination, old and new:

The seeker is supposed to look for some sort of correspondence between all this and his own case, the method of thought throughout being that of a broadly flung association of ideas. One has to feel, not think one's way into these secrets, letting each symbol grow into a cosmos of associated themes ...”(The Masks of God, Vol. II: Oriental Mythology, 413)

But beyond insights peculiar to one’s own life, these archetypal figures inspire deeper reflections as well.

One such image in tarot is the Wheel of Fortune.

Thoth Deck Copyright © 1978 by U.S. Games Systems and Samuel Weiser, Inc.

The central image on Card X of the major arcana in the Thoth deck (pictured here) is typical for tarot cards: a spoked wheel bearing different creatures as it turns—some going up, some going down. Often those figures are Anubis (guide of souls to the Underworld), Typhon (a serpentine dragon associated with chaos), and the Sphinx, though these may differ in more modern decks. But what is constant, from one deck to the next, is the depiction of a wheel.

The Wheel is an archetypal image that rolls through a wide range of mythological belief systems:

In tantric yoga, the kundalini serpent rises up the spine, passing through seven stations, or çakras (“wheel” or “cycle,” in Sanskrit). The Wheel of Rebirth figures prominently in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, as does the Wheel of Dharma. Aeon, a Greco-Roman deity associated with Time, is often depicted holding a wheel bearing the signs of the Zodiac (a belt of constellations that encircle the earth). Large stone medicine wheels with spokes, created by a variety of First Nations peoples, have been identified at seventy different sites in the northern United States and southern Canada (the oldest, the Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel in Alberta, constructed roughly 5,200 years ago, shows evidence of near constant use, save for a significant gap three thousand years ago; one could even argue that the woodhenge at the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, Missouri, erected circa 900 CE, is one of the more recent variations on this theme).

The word yule, marking the winter solstice, is descended from the Old English geol, apparently derived from the Indo-European base qwelo, meaning “go round”—the source of both “cycle” and “wheel”—thus denoting the turn of the year. And this is a recurring theme throughout James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which Campbell (in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, JCF’s featured work this month) describes as “one continuous present tense integument [that] slowly unfolded all cycle-wheeling history” (xxii). Jung even saw this shape, in the form of a mandala, embedded in the human psyche.

These various wheels have no beginning and no end, and appear to be associated with the cycles of the heavens, the cycles of the seasons, and the cycles of life.

On the one hand, that is a profound realization. From an individual perspective, however, each of us lives our life out on the rim, where there is no escaping that roller coaster ride.

The Wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,

You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,

You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,

If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.

(From “The Wheel” by the Grateful Dead)

When I pull the Wheel in a tarot spread, it suggests a change in circumstance—maybe for better, maybe for worse, but the one certainty is that change is inevitable. The Wheel just keeps on turning.

And yet, if I step back from my immediate drama, there is a deeper dimension to this image, one easy to overlook.

We join spokes together in a wheel

But it is the center hole

That makes the wagon move

(Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation, © 1988)

As Joseph Campbell explains to Bill Moyers,

In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down, or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time, centered.(Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, 119)

The hub is symbolic of the axis mundi, or World Axis, the still point around which all things revolve. It appears in myth in many forms: as the World Mountain (Mounts Sinai, Olympus, Meru); the World Tree (e.g. Yggdrasil in Norse mythology); the immovable spot at the foot of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha experienced illumination; and in the symbol of the Cross.

The image of a wheel, however, presents a more complete picture of the axis mundi in relation to the field of opposites that surrounds it and forms the world we experience.

To man’s secular view, things appear to move in time and to be in their final character concrete. I am here, you are there: right and left; up, down; life and death. The pairs of opposites are all around, and the wheel of the world, the wheel of time, is ever revolving, with our lives engaged in its round. However, there is an all-supporting midpoint, a hub where the opposites come together, like the spokes of a wheel, in emptiness. And it is there, facing east (the world direction of the new day), that the Buddhas of past, present, and future—who are of one Buddhahood, though manifest in series in the mode of time—are said to have experienced absolute illumination(The Masks of God, Volume II: Oriental Mythology, 16)

On one level, the Wheel of Fortune in the tarot speaks to the ever-changing circumstances of one’s own life. For those who are adept at reading symbols, however, this card also offers a more profound realization: yes, we continue to live on the rim, experiencing all the ups and downs, all the agonies and the ecstasies, of this passion play that is life—but when we seat our consciousness at the hub, the nature of that experience changes dramatically. The key is learning to embrace both realities at once.

The last word belongs to Joseph Campbell:

But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all—including themselves—revolves, everything is glorious and wonderful just as it is. The first duty of man, consequently, is to play his given role—as do the sun, the moon, the various animal and plant species, the waters, the rocks, and the stars—without fault; and then, if possible, so to order his mind as to identify it with the inhabiting essence of the whole.”(The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays, 1959-1987, 20)


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