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How to Choose Directions in Life Wisely

Updated: May 17

The Chariot card is traditionally designed with the image of a strong male figure in a car conducted by two sphinx-like beasts; the dark one at the left side and a white one at the right side. The armored charioteer carries a scepter, suggesting his royal nature or, perhaps, that he is a servant of royalty. 

In 1976, the first edition of A Feminist Tarot  was published. Authored by Susan Rennie and Sally Miller Gearhart, it began a welcome explosion of women’s tarot decks in the 1980s and 1990s. As the pioneer, A Feminist Tarot refers to the images of the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck, presenting them from the perspective of the emerging cultural feminist theory. Whatever the perspective, though, what this card has in common with other decks is that the central figure is trying to unite distinct animals in dark and white colors.

In “The Magic Flight,” chapter six of The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, Campbell was asked about the more interesting questions that he had heard after his lectures. And his answer was: “The most interesting question I ever got was when I was lecturing here at Esalen in the [Abraham] Maslow Room in 1967. Somebody asked, ‘What about the symbolism of the Waite deck of tarot cards?’” (172). Only people with good ego strength can afford to say I don't know, let me find out and come back the next morning as Campbell did, with the happy smile of having been introduced to something new out of the blue.

According to Campbell, he was excited to have had the luck to recognize a couple of sequences in the tarot deck. The first one, he says, is that “there is one for the Four Ages of Man: Youth, Maturity, Age, and what Dante calls Senility. He also calls it decrepitude.”

Campbell continues: “Then above that I saw another sequence where there was a woman pouring water or something from a blue vessel into a red one and this was called Temperance.” We may guess that Campbell saw card number seven, the Chariot, contained in the first sequence he referred to as the Four Ages of Man, and identified the theme of the passage from youth to maturity, what the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung called metanoia. Metanoia, very simply, is a shift in the personality, one that would act to balance the dominance of the Persona—the social mask that keep us functional in the world—toward the integration of other autonomous aspects of us, like the shadow, which contains the parts of ourselves we do not develop or accept. 

No wonder the animals pulling the chariot are meant to, in general, suggest the opposing forces that have been reconciled in the previous card (the Lovers). But, still, a strong yet flexible ego is needed to reconcile the new internal conflicts. And make no mistake, they will be there. These conflicts may present themselves in the form of external enemies, situations, or obstacles in one’s life. However, if we follow the psychological approach to these symbols, they can tell us what is happening inside our own psyche. As Jungian psychoanalyst Sallie Nichols points out in Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Jung noted that the psyche is a self-regulatory system. Although the beasts might not be heading together toward a direction, they may yet balance the ride and prevent the chariot from ending up in the moat. 

If we look again to the charioteer, he is privileging neither the left nor the right beast but, in some way, allowing the synergy of these opposing forces to foster a third thing that might show up as a solution (Jung called this the Transcendent Function). The result of the struggle suggested by the card is a transformative change in one’s thinking, feeling, behaving, or relating levels—perhaps even all of them altogether. 

It is easier to talk about transformations than actually go through them. If you pay attention to the charioteer’s shoulders, you may see the crescent moons. This suggests that we are dealing with unconscious emotional aspects underneath the habit patterns, that this is not an easy nor a crystal-clear process when we are wrestling with what life wants from us in order to facilitate the necessary personal growth. 

As Campbell said, the next sequence is the Devil, then a thunderbolt hitting a tower:

“the Tower of Destruction, which is the traditional sign for purgatory, you know, the tower of evil being smashed by the thunderbolt of God’s destruction of all of your tight ego-system relationships” (172).

 Benedict XVI may have declared the extinction of the purgatory as a material location in 2011. Whether or not Purgatory has ceased to be important in the popular or symbolic imagination is another matter. In view of this, the Pope said it might be “an interior fire, which purifies the soul of sin.” If we consider sin symbolically as what prevents us from fully being ourselves, from expressing our potential for wholeness (the archetype of the Self), then the suffering we experience in the psychological sphere does indeed make better sense.

Campbell was fascinated by the tarot experience, and for him “what it represented was a program for life that derived from European medieval consciousness” (175). And that, in the end, has to do with the mystical path disguised in a pack of cards traditionally used in fortune-telling.



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