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The Star as a Sign: From Pandora’s Box and Bethlehem to the Present

The Star from The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith. Public Domain.

In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers remarks that the Lord’s Prayer begins with, “Our father, who art in heaven,” and then asks Joseph Campbell if it could begin with our mother. It is a delightful trigger for the mythologist to talk about female metaphorical images as a representation of the world. In this context, the field of the symbolic images, the challenge of March’s MythBlast theme is to delve into the tarot card called the Star.

We can use Moyers's curiosity as a prompt to remember the history of the Waite Tarot, a popular deck which dates back to 1911. It was created by the American-born British poet and mystic Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942), and is sometimes also called the Rider-Waite, bearing the name of its first publisher, the British company, William Rider & Son, Ltd. (which is still alive, so to speak, as a part of Penguin Random House UK). However, it is also known by the name of Rider-Waite-Smith, acknowledging its British illustrator, Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951), a theatrical designer, artist, and writer. So, in this text, Rider-Waite-Smith it is. 

Card number seventeen, the Star card in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck shows a woman kneeling like the ancient knights: one leg on the ground and the other in a flexed position. Two knees to the ground means full and strict submission, so in this case the individual has surrendered to their fate, but the other leg in a flexed position shows that the ego is properly in its structuring, balancing function. “I surrender of my own will: having said this, do Thy will,” we can imagine the woman murmuring. We know that this position in general is also associated with a duly respectful and humble attitude towards people and life—and her bowed head confirms it. She is still young, but she appears to be well on her way to becoming a wise old woman, taking the responsibility for her life into her own hands and yet listening to the mystery.  Her right leg is solidly resting on the ground—grounded—representing her practical abilities, skills, and, perhaps, her attentiveness to the traditions she inherited. But the other foot is gently resting on a pool of water, usually a symbol for the Source of Life, showing us her willingness to listen to her intuition and inner resources. 

She holds a jug of water in each hand, the one in her right hand pours into the pool (the unconscious) while the jug in her left hand empties onto the earth (consciousness). An auspicious image by all means, if we consider the lush, fertile greenery around her, as well as the bird on the verge of taking flight in the background. The two feminine elements, earth and water, seem to be at peace and in balance: common sense and inner voice. 

In the image of card seventeen, the feminine principle in women and men makes the connection between the water element (usually linked to the emotions) and the earth, generally associated with firmness, strength, determination, objectivity, practicality, and structure. This individual has her foot on the ground, in touch with and stabilized by the earth.


It is also on earth that the material treasure of gold is found, so in a broad sense the earth can be related to prosperity. The background of the card shows eight stars with eight points, one star being larger in relation to the other seven. Let's remember the Star’s tarot card number is seventeen: if we add the numbers one and seven we will have eight again. In both Eastern and Western cultures, the number eight is a lucky number and related to the idea of growing, victory, and prosperity. 

The woman is naked, which symbolises her naïve attitude—no shame, no social masks, a perfect state of trust. It’s not accidental that this card is associated with hope, faith, purpose, renewal, and good paths, as well as a bridge to something larger than material life and the present, something we can call spirituality.

In the Mythic Tarot, the Star card features Pandora, possessed by curiosity, opening the tricky box given to her by Zeus, designed to obtain revenge for Prometheus’s theft of fire, which was then given as a gift to the human race. We can see Pandora’s wow face at the exact moment she sees its contents released into the world, not yet realizing she is actually letting loose all manner of misery and evil. Things like illness, death, and probably aging too. Though she hastened to close the container, the only thing that was left behind is usually translated as hope. For the ancient Greeks, hope was an expectation without a corresponding action and might be interpreted as a sign of self-deception or delusion. Pandora must have seemed like a happy child waiting to open a Christmas package, whose jaw drops when she doesn't get exactly what was envisioned. From some future perspective, however, the present may turn out to be even better than one might have hoped, but in the moment it causes pain, feelings of betrayal, and disappointment.

Pandora seems distraught in this image and therefore, in the reversed position, the card usually refers to a star traveler’s setbacks, bewildered because their foundations are not solid enough, and they may feel lost. In that case, the card is associated with a lack of faith and trust, despair, disconnection, a detour in the path, possible losses of various types (the opposite of the abundance card number eight promises). If we refer to the inverted Rider-Waiter-Smith Star card, the containers of water would fall towards the sky, showing an upside-down rain that would obviously not be in accord with nature. The starry night sky is not in the heavens, a metaphor for the peaceful state of mind known as Nirvana in Eastern traditions.

What may the Star card teach us today? Perhaps it speaks to a part of our psyche that, despite the frustrations and disappointments inherent in human life, with its ups and downs, does not allow itself to be endlessly trapped in the depressions caused by the inevitable losses experienced in the process of living. That despite everything, after the necessary period of sadness and mourning, every individual has the inner resources and strength to let the dead take care of the dead, to see the successes embedded in the failures, and to find meaning enough to cling to life again and again. Somewhere out there is a dim light that shines softly like a guiding star that heals our wounds and leads us home.

After all, as Campbell points out in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, these mythological images are references to the field of potential experience of the human spirit. “These are to evoke attitudes and experiences that are appropriate to a meditation on the mystery of the source of your own being,” says Campbell.

It is indeed a pleasant challenge to take on. In the Christian tradition, we can remember the saga of the three wise kings who were guided by the star of Bethlehem to pay their respects to the divine child. And let's face it: the star was up there in the sky, in plain sight, within everyone's reach. But only three people were open enough to see what it meant. What remains is the notion that the symbols and synchronicities are all around, but it is necessary to pay attention to the signs and stars so as not to let them, or our own lives, pass by unnoticed.




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