I have been working on an ocean-based Tarot deck for a while (at first I was calling it “La Mer,” an older French term for the ocean, until a friend pointed out calling your deck “Lamer” might not work out so well). The first card in the deck is The Fool, which represents taking the first step in the path you are following. The Rider-Waite deck shows a young man, his head in the air, walking toward the brink of a cliff, while a small dog barks to get his attention to what is about to happen.
In this version, a woman takes her first step into the sea with her spirit guide, in this case a spirit shark, glides silently by her side. The kelp part as they pass through, since once you know the language of the sea it will do anything for you. Because she is new to all this she must keep her head out of the water in order to breath; until she can master her fear of the unknown and begin swimming she will not be able to go very far, which is true with all of us when encountering something as vast and supernatural as the ocean for the first time.
I had been working on a tarot deck a couple of years ago, Um Tarot Suja, a sex magic deck (or at least that was the idea going into the project). I wanted to stay relatively faithful to the Rider-Waite deck. So, as they say in The Sound of Music, we’ll start at the beginning.
It helps me, at least, to think of the tarot as a narration of a spiritual journey, each card progressing down the path, as it were. The first card, The Fool, has a care-free youth starting out with his/her head in the sky, not paying attention to the abyss at they are about to plunge into. At their feet is a small animal (usually a yapping dog) which tries to get the Fool’s attention. We’ve all been there, starting out on a project full of excitement and idealism, having no idea what is in store for us.
My first two attempts (the bottom two cards) had the Fool stepping out into the (literal) darkness of the unknown. There isn’t a cliff, just the nothingness of the unknown, stepping into a blackness that has no form or shape. In the two cards both women have their hands stretched out to their spirit guides, a cat and a fox (what can I say? I like cats and foxes) and while technically either card to constitute as a Fool, neither really satisfied.
The final draft has the Fool transported to a unpleasant, godforsaken alien landscape (Utah) and the abyss, the start of our journey, is a stairway to (wait for it) the heavens. The Fool must take her first step up the stairs and into the unknown, accompanied by her guide, but once she does she can go anywhere in the universe she wishes, both literally and metaphorically.
Once we have agreed upon to start our journey the first card we come to is that of the Magician, and just like the Fool, the character in the card is young and just beginning to open their eyes to the world around them. In truth, though, the word is misleading. The figure in robes is more like an Apprentice, for the he or she is just beginning to learn their craft. In the original Rider-Waite deck the Magician learned his art from the Greek sun god, Apollo, though the Egyptian Ra or Isis, the Chinese god Taiyang Shen, or even the Aztec’s Tonatiuh — solar deities all — could teach us as well. It was to the sun the ancients of the world first turned to for warmth and wisdom — the “magic” that so many look for and so little find — and so it will be for us.
The young Magician stands before a table that contains his tools of the trade; the chalice and pentagram as well as the ceremonial knives. At his feet is a garden of herbs and flowers, for the Root Witches of Europe had knowledge over the world and knew how to cure and curse in equal measures back before the patriarchal religions rose to power. Above the Magician’s head is the ancient symbol of eternity, while in his right hand is a wand raised towards the sky, the element known as “æther,” and his left hand points to the ground, allowing him to be the conduit that combines heaven and earth.
I have never liked the word Magician, to be honest. Partly because the word is so overused in Hollywood that it has lost all meaning to me and we could be talking about a stage illusionist hired to entertain children or some farcical, Middle Earth geriatric who sneezes lightning and talks like a Shakespearean reject on the Gong Show. To me, the problem with the Magician is that he isn’t part of any community. He don’t use his skills to help others, he is simply a self-serving individual with nothing more up his sleeve than a desperate need for money and attention. Isis would not approve.
This is why I use the term Shaman in this deck, because by the very definition of a Shaman she is part of something larger than just herself and her needs. This is what separates in my mind a Shaman from a Magician or an Illusionist, though I’ve heard a lot of people call themselves Shamans, though usually at Pagan Festivals and usually in an attempt by lonely older men to get laid. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get laid, it’s the driving force of most of Western culture, it’s why college freshmen claim to read Charles Bukowski (hurrah for virgins!) but I’d be wary of anyone who tells you that being a Shaman is difficult, or that it takes years of concentration, that there are secrets given only to a select few, yadda yadda yadda. Learning to play the oboe takes years of practice. Learning to perform brain surgery talks years of study. Learning to do what a Shaman does — i.e., leave your body and enter into the Spirit world — is frightfully easy. I would go so far as to say it is mind-bogglingly easy. Anyone can do it, right now in fact, if you’re in the mood.
That’s the key word, “in the mood.” For we are all sexual creatures with erotic cores, but if you are unwilling to tap into your ecstatic nature then you might as well go back to drinking tequila and eating peyote and sitting in the desert at midnight, trying to avoid getting stung by scorpions, for that’s about as far as you’re going to get on your shamanic journey. The reason projecting outside your own body is so simple is that we do it every time we have an orgasm. In fact, I’d go so far to say that the orgasm is the shaman’s only true tool they need.
I don’t say this lightly: the orgasm is our doorway to the divine. It opens us up, allows us to leave our ego-based Id behind for a moment and step outside of our own consciousness. It’s why people are relaxed after an orgasm, blissful, at peace. But this experience isn’t only a sexual one. The same thing happens in the creative process. The poet John Keats called it “negative ecstasy,” the process of allowing ideas bigger than himself in. It is also what we experience in meditation and prayer when we are no longer part of our body. St. John called it “the dark night of the soul” and St. Therese of Lisieux described it as “transverberation.” But whatever word you use, opening yourself up to the universe, leaving your carnal body behind and taking part in something bigger than yourself, is what a Shaman does on their spiritual journey.
So far I’ve designed three different cards, each one having elements of what I’m trying to say in them (I’ll get the combination right, sooner or later)
All three cards contain the same element: the first thing we do when we discover we have a sexual side to ourselves is to masturbate. We are amazed that there are powers in our body not always under our control. Puberty is also a shamanic journey. Some of us feel frightened because of this. Some of us are made to feel guilty or ashamed as well. Perhaps this is what those PaganFest shamans were talking about when they said “that it takes years of concentration,” that they had been so emotionally damaged by adults who hate sexuality that they’d forgotten all about the power of the orgasm? Perhaps. Healing comes in many different forms and who am I to judge the path of another?
The reason that I say what separates a Shaman from a Magician is community is that traditionally the Shaman undertook her journey on the behalf of her community. The Inuit Shamans would swim to the bottom of the ocean to beg Sedna, the personification of the raging Arctic storms, for fish for the year to come. Since Sedna had no hands they would comb out her hair and out of her tangles and bloody stumps flowed all the marine life the villagers would need. When I first started learning about Tarot I didn’t have anyone I could turn to. The Spirit world is a scary place. Bad things happen there. I got a lot of ideas from books and since I adore books I was fine with that. I was, as they say, a solitary practitioner. However, claiming I didn’t have a community wasn’t really true. I had family and friends, I had people I worked with, neighbors, schoolmates, lovers and drinking buddies. In short, everyone around me was, in one way or another, part of my community, even if to them the idea of orgasms and Shamans was silly or foolish or something nice people never talked about. In a very real way that you, reading this, are now part of my community as well. When I ask a question to the deck it helps me ground that question by asking how it will effect those around me as well as just myself. There is no crime in having a little humility, just as there is no crime in daily ecstasy. Once we feel comfortable leaving our egos behind, even for only a moment, so we can hear what this ecstatic universe is trying to tell us, then we can call ourselves Shamans as well.
The myth of the self-made man is just that, a myth. Nothing is done in a vacuum and in order for us to learn we need others who will teach us. The High Priestess is our first opportunity to do just that on our journey. If the Shaman’s role was to gather the tools she needs to find the answers to her question, then the High Priestess will be the one who’ll show us how to use those tools.
In the Rider-Waite deck the figure in the card has an alternative name, the Popess, supposedly named after Pope Joan, a legendary woman in drag who fooled the Church for years and only was found out when she gave birth during Mass (somewhere, Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues, is rolling her eyes). Dressed in her blue, white and black colors, her cross and veils, the figure could also pass as a Mother Superior with little difficulty. She wears the moon crown of the great goddess Isis on her head and behind her swirl pomegranates and black and white lotuses, symbols of ancient female power. Finally, she sits between two pillars. One with a J inscribed on it while the other has a B, which curious because ancient Latin didn’t have the letter J in it for a very long time, it was only added much later to help in translating. Perhaps they are there to give Tarot scholars something to bicker about. A lot of bickering seems to go on between people who feel they are knowledgeable about the art. Arcane lore is a lot of things but it shouldn’t be a source of migraines after listening to certain people.
A lot of Tarot books and guides suggest meditation as the all-purpose fall back when confronted with questions you don’t immediately understand. If that were really the case there would be no point in using these cards at all, but I find Tarot allows me to look at my question in different ways, depending on the cards selected and how they are placed in the spread. The sort of linear thinking meditation produces rarely takes me anywhere outside of realizing time is a precious commodity and that serenity bugs the hell out of me. This is why the High Priestess isn’t seen sitting in a yoga position, blissfully smiling at eternity. In her hands she holds a scroll (in some cards it is a book) with the word “Tora” on it (perhaps a reference to the Tarot itself or the Jewish Torah) for one does not become a keeper of secrets lightly, it’s painful hard work. If pomegranates are a symbol for anything, they are to remind us of the Greek myth of Persephone, who went down into the land of the dead, Hell, and ate of its fruit. That sort of knowledge doesn’t come lightly, usually at a great cost to the wisdom seeker. The High Priestess doesn’t smile. She isn’t glad you are here. What she’s glad about, though, is that you are willing to be open enough to listen to what she has to say. You are willing to hear other’s wisdom. That is the key to this card: once you are willing to be open to answers they will come. It’s only when we close ourselves off — because of arrogance or pride or ignorance — that we find we are blind to what we are seeking. At that point no amount of esoteric knowledge will save you.
Last night I was having difficulty seeing this card in my head. I wanted a keeper of knowledge — historical knowledge, erotic knowledge, secret knowledge, self-knowledge — but she couldn’t obviously be dressed up like a nun (perhaps a leather nun) since any patriarchal religion that hates sex as much as the Catholic Church does won’t be the ones I’d turn to looking for my answers. It’d be like going to ask George Wallace, former pro-segregation Governor of Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, questions about morality. Sure, you’ll get answers, but nothing you can use. Then it all came together — who is known as the High Priestess? Obviously, Nina Simone.
“The High Priestess of Jazz,” as she was know, Simone was an African-American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and civil rights activist, whose first musical love was the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (fugues rock!). Here we have Nina at the height of her powers, during her Sinnerman-period. The terrible knowledge she possessed to be able to write a song like “Mississippi Goddam” (her response to the brutal murder of Medgar Evens and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where she sings, “Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi-goddam!” — if that’s not eating from the fruits of Hell, what is?) makes her exactly the person we all need to sit at the feet of. In front of her rests a black crescent moon bound by golden thread, while a crown of stars circles her head. As for the letters on the pillars, I’ve heard that in the Rider-Waite deck the B stands for Boaz, signifying ending, while the J stands for Jachin, meaning a beginning. Frankly, that’s just one interpretation, and really not all that interesting to me. We’ll let BJ stand for whatever you’d like it to be.
Perhaps second only to the discovery of fire and indoor plumbing, smut is one of humanity’s truly great inventions. To begin with, it easily polarizes people; almost everyone has a strong feeling about it. Very few people will claim to be apathetic about dirty pictures. That’s because it speaks about different forms of desire, and for some people that’s exciting and for some that’s horrifying — a world of conflicting emotions all over a scrap of paper with some ink on it. Curious.
I say this knowing I live a highly privileged life and while championing for us to live deeply and be, like Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I must acknowledge that there are people who will never get that opportunity, that for them rape and domestic violence are not only very real but — more so than any “love that dare not speak its name” — the real taboo subjects in our society. So while I believe dirty pictures are not the problem — sexual violence is the problem — it is not my place to convince anyone that the orgasm will set us free. If the space isn’t safe to explore these things then that is something only you, yourself, can say and the last thing I want to do is silence you in any form. There is far too much silence already in this world.
It’s one of the reasons I decided against including the Emperor in this deck. Partly because my own spiritual beliefs run counter to the idea that old graybeard patriarchs are the embodiment of wisdom and justice (I work with far too many of them as a hospice nurse to get sentimental) but mainly because that’s not the kind of sexual energy I want to deal with. I mean, just look at the card in the Rider-Waite deck: the throne, the battle-armor, the ram’s heads, the orb and scepter. Gray and dour, the symbol of authority run amok. Anyone who demands to be called the “All Father” while in bed has a whole lot of issues he needs to work out first before he can start channeling his own sexual energy.
We are a culture that sends tons of mixed messages about what it means to be male. We seem to confuse being alert and brave with aggressive and delight in simple dualities: black/white, men/women, gay/straight. Not only is it a terribly boring way to look at the world, but no where in Nature — outside of Hollywood storytelling — can you find any examples of dualities. Zip. Nada. I find it curious that there’s yet to be a Feminist critique about some of the assumptions that go into a lot of these Tarot decks — like the idea that the Emperor is, for some strange reason, always higher ranking than the Empress, or that he’s Mars to her Venus, father to her mother, civilization to her wild nature, imposing his rigid meaty order to her divine wet chaos– aggh!, I’m beginning to sound like bad Freudian porn. But people keep telling me Tarot works on archetypes, so you know who my Empress is going to be? Lilith — the world’s first divorced, bisexual bad girl — who got kicked out of the Garden of Eden because she hated the Missionary Position so much. And there isn’t enough Viagra in the world to get that old man in the Rider-Waite deck hard enough for the Queen of the Night.
We’re not even going to use the word Emperor in this deck, leave that for men still working through their daddy-issues. For me, the word Consort sums up everything that is good about male sexuality — wild enthusiasm and loving energy without the aggression; leadership and compassion without being a tyrant — but the word Consort also has an erotic side to it, much more so than the word Companion. Make no mistake, the sex is great with the Consort, but Lilith already knew that, that’s why she picked him.
While designing this card, I placed a muscled, fey young man standing before the Universe. Like good foreplay, we are told the sky is the limit, but that doesn’t mean we need to go after it all at once when a slow, teasing build-up can work much better. On either side of him are symbols of traditional male power — a sword and an ankh — but the Consort does not need to use them to prove anything to himself. One of the reasons men are so reluctant to talk about sexual and domestic violence is that it means admitting vulnerability. Gods and action heroes are never vulnerable — which is also why they are make-believe. Boys are taught at an early age that real men are like rocks. But instead of taking this as free advice about their abs, they decide it must mean they need to hide their emotions, and so like Aries the Ram, the first sign of the Zodiac, they are forever stuck in the “infant” stage of development. Luckily for them there seems to be a lot of co-dependent people out there who think babies are cute (but we’ll save that side of our psyche for another card).
The Consort, though. faces no such problems. Pain, like rough sex, brings wisdom. The Marquis de Sade once quipped that everyone adores a fascist in bed. That is certainly true for some but it isn’t a call for becoming a despot with one’s emotions. Even at his relatively young age, the wisdom the Consort has learned is that being equal is never a sign of weakness.
At some point you just have to shrug your shoulders and let it roll on by. Does it matter that people get it wrong? Of course not, everyone is entitled to their beliefs and if it doesn’t match my own then that is fine too. Only a fascist would get upset over an iconic representation of something that, for all intents and purposes, has no iconic representation. A graven image, I mean. The kind of thing people still get stoned to death for creating in certain parts of the world. That’s the problem with a Mystery — a divine Mystery — there is no way we can wrap our heads around it. By its very definition a Mystery is unknowable — it wouldn’t be a Mystery if we understood it, now would it?
I say all this because I’ve been looking for the Empress of my deck: Lilith. As the blues singer Ida Cox sang, “Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues,” and Lilith was the wildest of them all. The problem is, though, that the representations out there (at least on the Internet) don’t hit home as what I’m looking for. Just google her name and you get 2,440,000 image results; giant tits and bat wings seem to a favorite for a lot of artists. A lot of them look like copies of the freaky She-Devils on the cover of the Lords of Acid’s Voodoo U.
There’s nothing wrong with blood red skin and giant tits and bat wings if you’ve got them, but it resonates with me as much as pictures of a blue eyed, blonde hair Jesus do — maybe that’s what people in Gary, Indiana cream their panties over but it doesn’t do a lot for me.
The things is that there are ancient images of Lilith as how she was thought to have looked way back when. The Babylonians couldn’t get enough of her. There is a famous statue of her with crow feet, surrounded by owls, the messengers of the night. This image, though, while appearing in some 1910 Tarot decks, seems to not have made it into modern times all that much.
And, sort of like how images of Midwest Hippie Jesus make me laugh at the idea that someone from Jerusalem could look so Gringo, if you think about it, there’s no reason that representations of Lilith should have the sharp Germanic features so many artists give her. Rarely do you get to see Lilith look like she’s actually from the Middle East.
If she doesn’t have bat wings, then often she’s portrayed as a satyr: one of the goat-legged fuck-bunnies from Greek mythology. There’s worse ways to spend one’s life than living in the Arcadian forest and fucking anything that moves, I suppose. Still, a satyr is a satyr and while I can imagine that Lilith might have taken her fair share of satyrs to bed (when you’re the Queen of the Night you do have a reputation to uphold), I can’t really see how her goat legs would have gotten left out in her description, being the Mother of a Mixed Multitude, and all.
And finally, there’s the kink. Because Lilith was kicked out of the Garden of Eden for refusing to be submissive to that limp-dick Adam (seriously, if the Missionary Position is the only thing that works for you then perhaps you might want to rethink this whole “Father of Humanity” role a bit) and as a result Lilith has been ascribed every base vice known — from S & M to drag queens to dental dams. Which is why, if you’re making an erotic Tarot deck, having her as the keeper of all wisdom makes sense. Now if only I could find an image of her I agree with. Hmm …
Over the years I’ve used two different decks when it comes to Tarot — Milo Manara’s and The Cosmic Tribe. What I present here are some rough drafts of different card in the Major Arcana I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes when I’m designing cards I can see the entire deck’s theme in my head and then it’s just a matter of trying to find the right images that’ll work with each card.
This isn’t one of those times. But that’s fine too, since it means I can make it up as I go along. We’ll see what happens. It’s always good, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, to play with a wicked pack of cards.
For the most part I’ll be using the concepts of Tarot laid down in the standard Rider-Waite deck, mainly because more people seem familiar with it, and I find its ideas straight-forward and easy to adapt to what I am working on. The Fool (card 0) in the Tarot usually depicts a youth setting off on the first step of his or her journey. In the beginning we are all fools, open to anything, ready to believe in the most heretical of ideas. We will need this openness if we are to find what we are looking for. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, “a 1000 mile journey begins with the first step.” And so shall we. Buddha’s dying words to his followers were, “walk on!” And so shall we as well.
The Fool carries all her worldly possessions on a stick, thrown over her shoulder, happily looking up into the air and oblivious of the cliff she is about to step off into. Call it a leap of faith, call it falling into the unknown, but if we are willing to take our first step in attempting anything then we will need to step away from all of that which brings us comfort and complacency, so that we might confront whatever it is we are looking for. At the Fool’s feet a little white dog is barking, trying to get her to look where she is going.
While in the Rider-Waite deck the Fool is literally about to plunge off the side of a cliff, there are other less literal ways of representing that. The world of Tarot is the world of dreams, and the dream world seems like a good place to start our journey. In the middle of an empty desert a stone staircase rises into the universe. If we want to take our first step into the unknown we must be willing to follow those stairs where they lead us. In this image the Fool has yet to start climbing the stairs – has yet to commit herself to her question – and is distracted by what is around her. It’s easy to get distracted, but the moment we focus ourselves and put our foot on the first stair is the moment our journey truly begins.
A second idea I came up with for the Fool is a little different. Instead of looking like an escapee from Cirque du Soleil, I decided upon a young woman who about to step naked from behind a curtain. She has yet to do this, but she will. After all, if we are going to explore the world of poetry and passion, desire and madness, then the first step for us is being comfortable enough with our own bodies so that we can actually know what we are looking for. I’m always fascinated at how many people want to burn with fire but are so horrified at what that requires they never admit it? Passion is our birthright. The same fire that burned in John Keats and Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath burns in everyone. Pretending it is any other way, to me, is hell. The other thing that is different in both cards is that I don’t have an annoying white mutt. The dog is symbolic. It is the Fool’s guide, that which will help her on her journey. There is no reason why it has to look the way it does except that Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the cards for the original deck, happened to like little white dogs, apparently. The girl’s spirit guide here is a blue ghost fox. It stands out sharply from everything else in the room, since it belongs to the realm of sleep and half-sleep, not the bright light of logic and daytime skepticism.