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Chariot Reins and Skeleton Keys

The Chariot from the Rider-Waite Deck by Pamela Colman. Public Domain

For the month of July we will be looking at what, in most tarot decks, is the seventh trump or major arcana card, the Chariot. In the tarot, the Chariot is largely about overcoming challenges, mastery of oneself and one’s environment, and the journey to achieving one’s goals. 


As you might imagine, the invention of the chariot (itself made possible by the invention of the spoked wheel) was revolutionary. Of course, at the bottom of all this technology is the domestication of animals such as horses and oxen. Horses were first domesticated in the Steppes, the southeast region of the Ural Mountains, sometime before 2500 BCE, more than six hundred years after the wheel arrived from the Middle East. Strangely enough, the chariot was in use fifteen hundred years before humans began to regularly mount and ride horses. There are very early drawings of people trying to mount horses, but those attempts must have been largely unsuccessful until selective breeding developed stronger, larger, more accommodating animals. 


Almost immediately the chariot became a highly valued instrument of war. It provided a charioteer with an opportunity to cover a great deal of ground at dizzying speed and a stable platform from which one could use a bow and arrows to devastating effect. Around 500 BCE, the use of chariots began to decline because of the increased popularity and mobility of soldiers on horseback, organized cavalries, and improved infantry tactics that deprived chariots of their once novel advantages. Although, it’s worth mentioning that the indomitable Celts were still using chariots against the invading Romans until around the fourth century of the Common Era. For the most part chariots had become the focus of entertainment, and chariot racing became popular for the masses, particularly in Rome. 

Plato moved the chariot into the realm of metaphor and myth. In his Phaedrus, we overhear Socrates lecturing on the nature of the soul, which he compared to a team of winged horses and a charioteer. The horses of the gods' souls are good, beautiful, and obedient, but mortals’ souls have one horse that is beautiful and good, and one that is ugly and unruly. In some previous ethereal existence, the souls of mortals followed the gods around the vault of heaven, seeing divine sights and experiencing sacred revelations as initiates in the rites of the gods. 

The mortal souls that are able to follow the gods do so just barely. They understand some things but not others, and they have trouble with their horses, constantly rising and falling. Some of these souls are unable to keep up at all, and continue to fall earthward on ever shrinking wings, failing to get any glimpse at all of divine reality. Once incarnate these souls, in their postlapsarian state, are more invested in their own opinions than in any sort of ultimate truth. Any soul that caught sight of even one true thing is granted another circuit where it can see more, but eventually all souls fall back to earth. Those that have been initiated are put into various human incarnations depending on how much they have seen; those made into philosophers have seen the most, with kings, politicians, doctors, prophets, poets, manual laborers, and tyrants, descending accordingly as to their relative ignorance. But what a happy coincidence for Plato that philosophers are deemed to have seen more truth than other stations of life!

Chariots are also good metaphors for books (this might be the right place to imagine the record scratch sound effect). Books are capable of transporting us to other places, regions, countries, even other worlds in the few minutes it takes to pick one up and engage it. Books can do for us exactly what Plato described his soul chariot doing; they offer us sublime revelations and truths. They offer us beauty, emotion, and relationships. Books initiate us into the human experience and ultimately teach us to be less parochial and more humane. When we learn to read compassionately, generously, and carefully, we can’t help but incorporate those habits into the living of our own lives, and we may even notice that our own lives seem to have acquired the qualities of well plotted novels.  

In a letter to a friend, Franz Kafka wrote that “we need books that affect us … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” For those of you who regularly read the work of Joseph Campbell or the MythBlast newsletter, or listen to one of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythMaker Podcast Network’s podcasts, we are offering yet another tool, a freshly sharpened ice axe with which one can address that frozen inner sea. This month we’re introducing JCF’s Skeleton Key Study Guides, a new series of study guides for books by Joseph Campbell. These study guides are written by contemporary experts in myth, and may help you further discover the joy of Campbell’s writing and his insights into mythology. 

Each Skeleton Key Study Guide focuses on one book by Joseph Campbell. You'll find a chapter summary for each chapter in Campbell's book plus notable quotes, points of interest, reading lists, and ideas for working with the material in that chapter in the form of discussion questions, essay topics, or creative prompts. These study guides are written for teachers and students who study Joseph Campbell, but Skeleton Key Study Guides are also ideal for creatives, psychologists, and any seekers who feel drawn to myth. Our vision is for these guides to open a portal for you into Campbell's work.

The first study guide in the series, Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide, is available now in ebook and paperback formats. The study guide accompanies Joseph Campbell's Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. View the recording of a webinar with two of the authors of Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide, our own Dr. Joanna Gardner in conversation with Dr. Olivia Happel–Block about the study guide on the Joseph Campbell Foundation's YouTube channel



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