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The Star of the Archetypal Imagination

Updated: May 17

Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body.

 —Martin Ruland the Younger

Arthur Edward Waite, the famed esoteric scholar and mystic who with Pamela Colman Smith created the classic tarot deck, understood very well what he was dealing with. In the same way that C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell understood the nature of mythic imagery, we are dealing with a “presentation of universal ideas by means of universal types, and it is in the combination of these types—if anywhere—that it presents Secret Doctrine.” (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, pp. 18–19)

One of the most coveted cards in the tarot deck is the Star. It is beautifully described by Waite as a perfect picture of “eternal youth and beauty.” (p. 47) A naked woman, with her left knee bent upon the ground and her right foot resting on the waters of a pond or lake, strikes the eye as deeply symbolic. She pours her elixir of eternal youth upon the two maternal elements of earth and water. The elixir of life runs through both maternal elements as the outpouring of the Star’s indestructible psychic energy. 

Waite sees in this anima figure an archetypal image of the divine feminine. He points to its further significance in the light of Jewish mysticism where She is “the Great Mother in the Kabalistic Sephira Binah, which is supernal Understanding, who communicates to the Sephiroth that are below in the measure that they can receive her influx.” (47–48)

In the Kabalistic tradition, Binah or Understanding is one of the ten sefirot or emanations of the Unending One, Ein Sof.  Along with Chockmah (wisdom) and Da’at (knowledge), Binah exercises the power of discriminating judgment and critical thinking, both necessary to the conscious functioning of the divine intellect. Where Chockmah and Da’at are both lofty and high, Binah is “down to earth”; she is close to the waters of our cultural inheritance and the ebb and flow of everyday life. She purges and nourishes the scorched earth with her vivifying essence as She establishes a harmonious balance of the elemental forces of life.

The Sephiric Mother thus pours the emanations of the Unending One into this world through her twin vessels of psychic energy. This twinship of the vessels points to a dialectical pattern of creation. The Great Mother separates two psychic streams of unconscious life in order to unite them again in the cosmic reflection of the waters of the essence. For what the waters reflect is the celestial energy of the Star, which is not just an instance of light in the sky but the very head and source of the Light of creation. 

The pristine character of this card with the spiritual nakedness of the figure brings us back to the very beginnings of the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden. The Star recalls the archetypal moment in which God, sailing over the unconscious waters, uttered the first Logos of the creation: “Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) 

Joseph Campbell also picks up on the creative interaction between light and water in the book of Genesis, for “it is that activation of the water that demarks the world creation.” (Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, 53) As a mythic image, the Star also demonstrates a certain moment of the “activation of the waters” as in the context of the alchemical Opus Magnum. Thus the waters that are activated in this scene correspond to what the alchemists called “our water,” aqua nostra, a mercurial fluid also described as a “fiery water” or aqua ignis. In the activation of these waters we have the character of the alchemical transforming substance of the Great Opus of Creation.

As a whole the tarot Star image represents an act of grace in which conscious discrimination and free will combine with the unconscious movement of the archetypal imagination. While the Star shines in the background, the Great Mother divides and channels the supernal stream of archetypal creativity into two gradients of elemental functioning. These separated streams are conjoined in a single dialectical process or logic. The outpouring of the Unending One has been divided in two; it has entered the dichotomous conditions of conscious manifestation: space and time, object and subject. In the fiery light of the Divine Intellect, the sephiric goddess of the understanding pours its logical essence into the cosmic elements of feeling and sensation, both psychic elements of an emotional connection to Nature and her secrets. 

In view of the true philosophical mysteries of the Star card, you can understand why Waite seems so impatient with “the summary of several tawdry explanations,” which say that the Star is simply “a card of hope.” (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, p. 47) Such facile readings and interpretations muddle the dialectical waters of association with “loss, theft, privation, abandonment,” as well as “arrogance, haughtiness, impotence.” (p. 81) For all these emotional states or psychic events are experienced by anyone engaged in the process of creation. In order to understand the symbolism of this card, therefore, we must find a dialectical path that entwines the inner contradictions of the image into a single stream of truth—or Logos. This is what the Star is trying to express through purely pictorial means. For in the activation of these waters we find the unifying “cosmic” reflection of the fiery Logos of creation, as Heraclitus of old had already understood it:  

“This world-order [cosmos] (the same of all) did none of gods or men make, but it always was and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.” (The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. Kirk and Raven, 199, fr. 220)

As the Star represents this fiery element of cosmic order in the sky, it is also reflected in the smooth waters of creation. Through the mediation of the anima, we have the activation of the transcendent function—the function that allows us to grow and change psychologically—having thus barely scratched the surface of one of the Major Arcana of the tarot deck.


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