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The Thought of the World

Updated: May 17

The World from the Rider-Waite Deck by Pamela Coleman Smith, Public domain

“Till then, think of the world.” (Julius Caesar 2.2 line 319)

As we turn to the closing of the year, it seems like that state of the world is the last thing we want to think about. And yet “the World,” the ultimate card of the major arcana, bids us go beyond our subjective fantasies in order to face the realities of the world—grim though they may be. For every violent event in the world can be read as the explosion of a certain repressed truth in the collective unconscious which is yet to be thought out.

In the first place, the World card represents the culmination of the whole process of individuation portrayed in the classic tarot deck. It represents the full integration of the Self as the synthesis of the four elements, the higher and lower realms. Therefore, it is generally considered a fortune laden card which brings together “Assured success, recompense, voyage, route, emigration, flight, change of place” with their opposites “Inertia, fixity, stagnation, permanence” (AE Waite. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, p. 81.) Even its “reversed” significance does not seem too detrimental. So it may be a surprise to learn that the card of the World is ruled by the astrological sign of Saturn, with all its “negative” constellations and attributes.

In Medieval alchemy, Saturn corresponded to lead, the heaviest and darkest of metals. It constituted the emblematic starting point of the Great Opus. As a manifestation of the prima materia or primal matter, Saturn was associated with the stage of the nigredo or the “blackening”—a state of deep depression and melancholic introspection which today is being triggered by the state of the world. 

The mythic associations that belong to Saturn as Chronos devouring his own children points to the uroboric nature of the prima materia. It is another variation of the self-relating movement of the “serpent that bites its own tail” as the alpha and omega of the Great Opus. Lead thus became the literal and symbolic ore out of which the philosophical gold of Alchemy was to be mined and extracted. 

The card of the World is, after all, an archetypal image of a mode of consciousness that shows itself to be, as it were, in full possession of the lapis philosophorum or “Philosopher's Stone.” But such consciousness only emerges out of the background of Saturn as the absolute negativity of the soul.

As we can read in an alchemical text from the 17th Century:

“My child shall know, that the Stone called the Philosopher's Stone, comes out of Saturn”. (A Work of Saturn. Johann Isaac Hollandus from Of Natural & Supernatural Things. London, 1670.)

Saturn thus indicates the “negative” source of wisdom emerging out of the unconscious recesses of truth. Determined as the flow of temporality, Saturn also symbolizes the process of generation, becoming, and change. If the World card is to represent, as Waite suggests, “the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God (Nature) ( p. 53),” then this rapture must surely include the Saturnian element of absolute negativity which would prevent a positive consciousness of the whole. 

Jung expresses a thought in a similar vein when he writes:

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious” (CW13: 265-266¶355).

The darkness that needs to be made conscious, however, is not only of a personal nature. As a proponent of the collective unconscious, Jung implicitly understood that this task of enlightenment aims at the elucidation of a collective darkness. This piece of unconsciousness corresponds to an archetypal strand of truth   which runs through an individual as it does through entire societies and cultures—across the centuries. Weaving and unraveling our collective existence, these unconscious forces will cry havoc with a Monarch’s voice as long as the hidden and repressed truth of the conflict is not borne out. Joseph Campbell seems to have understood this supreme insight when he wrote:

In India, the objective is to be born from the womb of myth, not to remain in it, and the one who has attained to this “second birth” is truly the “twice born,” freed from the pedagogical devices of society, the lures and threats of myth, the local mores, the usual hopes of benefits and rewards (Flight of the Wild Gander. Bios-Mythos 38).

True spiritual maturity lies on the other side of the mythic wonderland of our subjective fantasy where we have become attuned to the nature of reality as such. For “The seat of the soul is there, where the outer and the inner worlds meet,” as Campbell quotes Novalis, a German philosopher and mystic from the 18th century, immediately remarking: “That is the wonderland of [true] myth” (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, 5). True myth as vera narratio (true story) takes place in the real world, where the seat of the soul actually is, in the crucible of myth and history. For the soul is out there in ecstatic existence, where there is real joy and actual fulfillment, as well as real pain, suffering, death, and the terrible capacity for mass murder and genocidal revenge.

To remain in the subjective womb of myth implies a state of being like a spiritual stillbirth—a condition that befalls millions inside the world religions. It also means that we are already caught in the ideological sack of status quo wisdom, where we quickly dwindle into pawns of industry or rabid watchdogs of the principalities of the “powers that be.” But if we can put aside the law of children and be freed from “the lures and threats of myth,” then we have a real chance at transcendence. Having been twice born into the World, we learn to live humbly under the light Truth and Justice—yes, precisely in their capital or archetypal senses. Rather than a mystic vessel of light designed to escape into subjective fantasy, the nature of true myth (vera narratio) is to bring us into contact with the painful truths of the Soul of the World, putting us in touch with the Saturnian background of the collective psyche. 

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