I am fascinated by the paradoxes and contradictions in the Tarot cards. For instance, the Hanged Man (Le Pendu) is generally shown as a man suspended upside down from a cross pole by his foot. Standard Tarot interpretations often talk about hanging as a punishment, suggesting the figure is a traitor, criminal, or has been unjustly sacrificed. But, wait – he is far from dead, looks perfectly happy, and is only strung up by the foot, not the neck. Turn him up the other way and he’s fine! So what is he doing in this position?
Symbolically, we can talk about shamanic practices and mythical reversals: the god Odin hung himself upside down on the World Tree for nine days in order to penetrate the mysteries (he emerged with knowledge of the sacred Runes). But in the context of Tarot history and its home in warmer, mostly Mediterranean countries, the chilly Viking god can only be a cross-reference. No, how about an acrobat? In some very old versions of the Tarot, the Hanged Man is holding a bag in each hand which look like weights. And there are accounts of pole acrobats and rope dancers who did tricks very like this. An eye witness account in modern times reports seeing an itinerant acrobat in France in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.
What about this custom from Girona, in Northern Spain? At the time of the Black Death, it had to be sealed off from the rest of the world. During the weeks or months that they were cut off from all their fellow citizens some of the residents decided to cheer up their neighbours with displays of acrobatics from poles erected between the narrow buildings. http://gironablog.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/some-girona-legends-tarl.html. Now this is commemorated every year in the Festival of the Tarlà, with a lifesize figure suspended from a pole. Admittedly, he’s not upside down, but still gives the sense that somersaulting and hanging suspended are part of the spectacle.
So I think we have here in the Tarot not a tragedy or an unhappy end, but a figure who is willingly turning himself the wrong way up, showing off his skills, defying gravity, but at the same time representing a new way of seeing the world. The Tarot’s images are resonant with symbolism, but they are also rooted in culture and history. Sometimes the actual historical context seems less important when it comes to interpreting the cards, but here I’d say that digging out the origins of the image can contribute enormously to our understanding.
Work in progress!
Pictures from top:
the so-called 'Charles VI Tarot, prob. 15th c Italian
'Tarla' doll, Girona
Jean Noblet Tarot, French c. 1650
Others from French & Italian packs in my possession
Feast of Fools - an old Twelve Days celebrfation
So we’re into the Twelve Days of Christmas, a time I like to use not only for Christmas celebrations but for contemplating, going deep into that heart of darkness. Studies show that in Scandinavian countries, with their long hours of darkness, you are likely either to tap into your creativity at midwinter, or go crazy. Perhaps some of us do a bit of both.
It’s obvious that we’re in the darkest time of the year – those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is – but not why there are Twelve Days. And why, oh why, doesn't the sun rise earlier each morning, now that we’ve passed the winter solstice? Well, the two things are related. Because of the angle of the earth’s axis, and the elliptical shape of its orbit, there’s a strange anomaly: after we pass the shortest day of the year, around Dec 23rd, the sun will still rise later and later each morning until Jan 6th heralds in the shift to an earlier sunrise. So it feels as though the darkness is deepening, not dispersing.
In many cultures, these twelve days (actually a few more, but it’s genuinely twelve between Christmas and Twelfth Night or Epiphany on Jan 6th) are considered as time out. The Romans placed them outside the calendar itself, and the ancient gods of the Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days. In Germany all spinning must cease, so as not to offend the winter goddess Frau Perchta, and in England as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the Feast of Fools and the reign of the Lord of Misrule. Finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day! More poetically, the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: ‘On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
The Twelve Days are a magical time, with many traditions of fortune-telling. The veil between our world and the invisible world of spirits is said to be thin. There is the opportunity to seek out knowledge, and discern what is to come in the year ahead. One method is to take each day of the twelve as representing a month of the year, and for instance, by studying the weather on that day, predict how the corresponding month will turn out. (I have tried this, with not very encouraging results…) Other divination rituals use candles, nuts and even the family Bible, to determine by word or action what will happen. More macabre practices involve watching out for the spirits of those who will die in the year to come, perhaps seeing them pass into the churchyard. Serious or a bit of fun, these rituals have embedded themselves in our Christmas traditions, whether it’s pulling crackers or playing board games, to see what fortune has in store for us.
The rich overlap of traditions, from indigenous folk traditions to the great rites of the Christian religion, all play a part in our appreciation of Christmas. The birth of the sun god, Russian Yarilo, or of Mithras, of Christ, is solemnised in worship, luck-bringing present ceremonies, and games and feasting that kindle a spark in the dark days of winter.
I love this period, and hope for fresh inspiration from it.
The Silk Road
I have made two trips along the Silk Road, and other visits to countries along its path - Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. I became fascinated by the mystique and history of this ancient trade route, and enchanted by its vibrancy today. In my book for children, Stories from the Silk Road, I told some of the legends recounted by travellers, and wrote about their colourful context. I also began giving illustrated talks about the Silk Road to arts societies and on cruises. From the many photos I took and pictures I gathered, I’d like to create a few little themed galleries and slide shows to share with you on this blog, starting with:
The Legend of Rainbow Silk
Silk patterned in rainbow shades is still the national material of Uzbekistan, and legends suggest how it first came into being. One is that the wavering, iridescent ripples of the design were inspired by gazing into a running stream. Another is that an irritable Khan or ruler commanded one of his courtiers, on pain of death, to provide some new novelty to please him. The desperate old adviser had resigned himself to execution, when on the last morning he woke with tears in his eyes – and saw a rainbow through his wet lashes!
In these images, you can also see silk in production by traditional methods in Uzbekistan.
How do you choose your ancestors?
How do you map out your family history? Do you go up one line of the family, or do you try to discover the whole circle of direct line ancestors whose DNA has influenced yours? What you choose, the heritage which you lay claim to, will affect not just the research you do, but your whole concept of your ancestry. I’ve written about this fascinating challenge in my book Growing Your Family Tree (Chapter Two), but I’ll give a brief outline here. This vital topic is given scant attention, apart from practical considerations of managing your research, but it has a rich significance which everyone involved with family history can explore for themselves.
Circle of Ancestors – This approach means that you set out to trace as many direct-line ancestors as you can. The circle doubles in size at each generation, from 4 grandparents, to 32 at your 3x gt grandparents, and 64 for your 4x gt grandparents. Stop right there, for a moment…the numbers go rapidly off the scale after this point. If you want to lay claim to your ancestry, to get to ‘know’ your forbears, and to sense them in their entirety as a group, then clearly you’ll need to set a limit. For me, 32 is about right. I’ve got just about all of them in place, and each one has a distinct identity, and often a lot more too in terms of personality and life events. I’m happy to take some back to 4x gts or even further if it’s an easy line to follow, or there’s some riddle that I want to solve such as ‘How did this branch of the family end up in this particular place?’
A Direct Line – The traditional method of genealogy was to trace a direct line of descent, usually through the family name. As most of us come from a patrilineal culture, where taking the father’s name is standard, this tends to reinforce the concept of a male line as equating with ancestry. There are no rights or wrongs here; every society in the world devises its own kinship system, and where the line of descent is perceived as coming through the father, it tends to strengthen the family identity along those lines. And, of course, it’s easier to research as a rule, in these societies. But it’s by no means universal, and there’s no overriding reason to take either the name or the father’s line as the given.
You might also, for instance, choose to research the female line, and if you can cope with the successive name changes that are likely to occur with each generation, you may find it rewarding to trace this very physical and genuine line of descent. After all, it’s said that as many as a third of children have a different father to the one listed on the birth certificate! I have a treasured pair of photographs showing five generations of my female line, from my maternal great grandmother to my daughters’ daughters. And I can trace it back another three generations to my 3 x gt grandmother, Maria Adie of Bedworth, in a family of ribbon weavers and miners. There, so far, the trail runs out – unless you know different?
The Family Tree – It’s great to have a goal to start with, such as following one line, or establishing your circle of ancestors. But as I’ve indicated, you’ll probably want to compromise here and expand there, so the ‘Tree’ form allows you to do just that. Its branches grow vertically and stretch out laterally as well. The Tree itself is a powerful symbol of the family, and in many traditions it’s seen as representing the source of individual human lives, and the spirit of an individual family as well. Modern software makes it easy to ‘grow’ your tree, and to view it in different ways.
Tree, circle, line: our family history is not just about gathering data; the forms we draw it in are powerful and have a psychological impact too. These are ancient and potent symbols, and go beyond their use in pragmatic diagrams. By contemplating and drawing up family patterns this way, my sense of connection with my family history has deepened, and become full of meaning. And although you will probably use one of these primarily, you’re likely to find that each has value, and that you can move from one to another as your interest develops.
Five generations of my female line, from gt grandmother Sarah Lee to granddaughters Eva & Martha
Kuan Yin and her oracle in Gloucestershire
I enter the Kuan Yin temple in Singapore. I’m the only Westerner here, and I try to move quietly, unobtrusively in case I breach any detail of temple etiquette. Statues of Kuan Yin and other gods and goddesses in varied sizes and forms are grouped on shrines and in niches. The predominant colours are red and gold; the air is full of the smoke of joss sticks, varied altars are piled with offerings of fruit and flowers, and donation boxes are regularly stuffed with notes. I notice how many young people are here worshipping at the shrines, consulting the oracle, and invoking their own personal encounter with the deity.
But later, when I find out more about Kuan Yin, I discover that here is a lady who cannot be pinned down by religion or culture. She slips from one to another, from Buddhism to Taoism to Shintoism. She has connections with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. She may be revered as a goddess or as a spirit, a bodhisattva (a Buddha-to-be) or an immortal who was once an exceptional human child. Kuan Yin goes by other names, too, but they all mean one thing in essence: She Who Hears the Cries of the World. She is a listening ear, a saving arm, a calming presence.
And she has an oracle. More than that, her temples in the Far East are full of men and women seeking advice on a personal problem or significant question by consulting this oracle. The oracle consists of 100 numbered sticks which are shaken in a brass or wooden cylinder, vigorously and noisily, until at last one jumps out. The number corresponds to a reading, which in turn is a poetic reflection, augmented by an interpretation of what this means in individual life. Here, the seeker hopes, is the wise advice which will help to resolve their query. To me this is an extraordinary validation of divination as a part of spirituality, connecting it to sacred space, whether a temple or a church – something all but lost in the West.
I first ‘met’ Kuan Yin in her famous temple at Penang in December 2011, while Robert and I were working as lecturers on a cruise. I seized the chance to explore her domain, and witness the oracle in action. Then at Singapore, one of our next stops, came this second chance to visit one of her chief temples. Here I tried out the oracle for myself, and was given a copy of it in translation as a gift from the temple, something to be treasured.
I’d had a copy of her Oracle for some years, in fact, in the form of a book by Stephen Karcher, produced in an accessible version for Westerners but faithful to the spirit of the original. But discovering the living tradition in those two temples spurred me on to find out more about her, and to acquire my own set of oracle sticks. This I did in a shop close by to the Singapore temple – but then how on earth was I to decipher the Chinese numbers? A helpful site on the internet finally gave me the tools to do that. http://www.mandarintools.com/numbers.html.
Then I fancied having a statue of Kuan Yin. I was due to present an evening to my current Nine Ladies group (see my book ‘The Circle of Nine’), exploring the Kuan Yin archetype, so there was something of a deadline. Could I find a figure in time that pleased me, and which didn’t cost a vast amount?
Kuan Yin’s chief symbols are the moon, the sea and a dragon. She is a patron of sailors, and there are many temples to her on the sea shore. She is merciful, and it is said that just as her heart is open to all, so should one’s own heart be open when approaching her. Elaborate rituals and paraphernalia are of little importance compared to that. Still, it would be nice to have a visual reminder of her. I hovered over bronze statues of Kuan Yin advertised on the internet, depicted with the crescent moon behind her, and a dragon at her feet, but in the end chose a relatively simple one in white porcelain. The image of her as a ‘white goddess’ has appeal to me, perhaps because it carries a quality of universality, of the archetype behind the archetypes of the feminine. So that’s what I went for – delivered from, of all places, a Bonsai centre! http://www.got-bonsai.co.uk/ For around £45 I received a speedy delivery of my white Kuan Yin, nestling safely in a cheerful Chinese patterned cardboard case.
She was described as ‘blanc de Chine’, which meant nothing to me until I looked it up and found, to my delight, that this figure had been made in Fujian province in China, and stemmed from a centuries-old tradition of making Kuan Yin and other sacred figures there. Ah – the People’s Kuan Yin! Lineage means more to me than lavish originality; this little figure has provenance to me. Excellent essay at http://www.holymtn.com/gods/BlancdeChine.htm!
And she has a secret resource: an internal reservoir which can be filled with water, and which then drips ‘blessed Dew’ for several minutes. It took me a little while to discover that you don’t look for a hole in her head to pour it into – you pour it into the hole at her feet, then turn her upside down to feed the reservoir before setting her the right way up again! That little challenge solved, she became a beautiful and serene model of a spirit, deva or deity – call her what you will – who presided over a very successful evening of discussion, meditation and oracle consultation in our front room last night.
The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion – Stephen Karcher
Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin – John Blofeld
Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion – Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho
Divination: The Search for Meaning - Cherry Gilchrist
Author of books on family history, relationships, alchemy, myths & legends. Life writing tutor teaching for Universities of Oxford & Exeter. Keen on quirky, ancient and mysterious things.