A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Movement"
Volume 3 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Technically Tarot
Metaphors of Movement and Change in the Major Arcana

with Jeannette Roth

It has been said the only thing remaining constant is change. Our lives, our futures are always in motion. At times, change comes very quickly, and the task of dealing with the results can make us feel overwhelmed. On other occasions, the process is slow, and we may need to deliberately step back and reflect in order to truly see and understand the "big picture" of what we are passing through.

Tarot is an excellent instrument for putting the process of change - the "motion" of our lives - into perspective. Through reading or meditation, we can contemplate the impact of past events, and consider future possibilities. Sometimes, our tarot studies may provide us with very focused insights - specific results easily viewed within the context of cause-and-effect. But there are other times when the cards reveal a grander scheme: trends and patterns, driven by perhaps seemingly unrelated but nevertheless interlocking experiences, quietly shaping the course of our life's journey for the better or worse.

The concept of "motion" may be potentially captured by any card within the tarot. As always, specific interpretations must be considered in light of the subject matter and the context in which a card appears. There are, however, several cards whose archetypal associations prominently address the idea of movement, and by extension, the process of change. In this article, we'll examine some of these cards, exploring both traditional and modern re-expressions of their lessons. It is by no means a comprehensive discussion of the subject; rather, I have intended this essay as a "jumping off" point, to generate ideas for further personal study.

The Wheel of Fortune: Cycles

Perhaps the card most commonly associated with motion and change is The Wheel of Fortune. The ultimate metaphysical "perpetual motion machine," the Wheel has been associated with the rise and fall of destinies since the earliest decks. In one of the most common forms of its execution, the card's image shows a figure riding the "down side" of the wheel, toward the misfortunes at its nadir, while at the same time, the ceaseless turning carries another figure upward toward a more promising outlook.

The stereotypical (and incorrect) interpretation of this process is referred to as "luck," but the more proper designation is "cycles." "Bad luck" is, in reality, often the result of our inability to recognize where we are currently positioned within a natural cycle, thereby leaving us unable to formulate a proper course of action for dealing with our circumstances.

In contemporary decks, it has become increasingly common to drop the words "of Fortune" from the title of this card, referring to it simply as "The Wheel." This modification is perhaps intended to distance the card from its association with the idea of "luck" - a word implying circumstances are entirely beyond our control - and refocus attention on the more productive concept of "natural cycles." While we may not control the cycle itself, we can certainly adapt our behavior in order to better enjoy (or at least weather) the ride. By identifying and acknowledging this natural process, we can plan accordingly and work in harmony with the Wheel, rather than struggling against it.

One modern deck that successfully adjusts the Wheel's image to express this idea is Peter Balin's Xultun Tarot. Wedding the tarot archetypes with ancient Mayan culture, Balin features the circular Mayan calendar on his (untitled) "Wheel" card. The calendars of the ancient Central American peoples are well known for their stunning detail and accuracy; in the Xultun deck, this symbol reassures us the cycles within our own lives need not remain a mystery. Within the Mayan calendar's circle, we are reminded the seasons come, go, and return; each day, the sun rises, sets, and then rises again; and the years pass, and begin anew. The Mayans were able to record and forecast these processes through observation and deduction; with careful observation and deduction of our own, we may likewise be able to understand the "seasons" within our own lives.

Death: Transition

Sensationalistic portrayals in the media have made the "Death" card one of the most famous - and feared - cards in the tarot. But contemporary writers on the subject have largely come to view the thirteenth major arcana with a more sympathetic eye. Whether or not the card should actually ever be interpreted as indicating physical death, there is certainly much potential in considering its broader, metaphorical possibilities.

All non-atheistic spiritual paths maintain that the essential essence of what we are does not dissipate into oblivion upon our deaths. Rather, we find ourselves "reborn" into a new life - be it on a higher spiritual plane, or through reincarnation into the material one. Thus, metaphorically speaking, Death does not represent an ultimate end, but rather, a transition into a new and different phase. While the experience requires us to leave much behind, it also opens up new possibilities not available to us before.

Although the skeletal figure with his scythe remains the dominant figure in decks old and new, modern tarot creators seem more and more drawn to alternative, gentler ways of representing the transitional metaphor. An increasing number of decks are changing the name of this card altogether, in favor of titles such as "Metamorphisis," "Transformation," or "Rebirth" (to name a few). Alternative icons may accompany or replace Death's skeleton - butterflies are a popular choice, easily recognizable as a symbol of figurative death and rebirth. One example can be found in Pace, Raimondo, and Spadoni's Pagan Tarot (published by Lo Scarabeo), where we see a blindfolded initiate undergoing a ritual of passage. The initiate holds a branch in her left hand, upon which a caterpillar has woven its cocoon. A butterfly rises from her open right hand - a symbol of the reborn personality that will reside within the initiate as she emerges from her own "spiritual cocoon."

In an unusual but appropriate variation worth noting, Monica Knighton's Tarot of the Dead - a deck populated with skeletons on almost every card - presents the "Death" card as a living, maternal, Empress-like figure, her pregnant belly presaging a new beginning full of possibility and promise.

The High Priestess: Ebb and Flow

At first, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest the silent, enthroned High Priestess would be intimately connected with the concept of motion. In the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck, she is viewed as the guardian of the entrance to the temple of mysteries, seated before the drawn veil with key in hand.

Yet flanked by the opposing black and white pillars of Boaz and Jachin, her foot resting upon a familiar crescent shape, the High Priestess tacitly speaks of passive energies: observable motion resulting from unobservable forces. If we rise to the Priestess' challenge to look deeper into these symbols, we may recall how charged objects are irresistibly drawn toward magnetic poles, and how the ebb and neap of the water's tides are not driven by the water itself, but by the gravitational pull of the moon. The invisible forces attract and repel - a "back and forth" motion, in contrast to the Wheel's rotation. We cannot observe these forces themselves; we only witness their results. It is a metaphor that raises the question: what unseen forces are at work in our lives, pulling us toward some things and pushing us away from others? By identifying the "magnetic" or "gravitational" energies to which we are passively exposed, we can proceed to consider whether their effects are beneficial, or whether we may be better served to find a way to break free of their sphere of influence and move in a different direction.

The concept of the High Priestess as a symbol of movement - albeit of a very specific nature - is admittedly not high on the list of most commentators' summaries of the card's divinatory and esoteric significance. But neither is it entirely absent; the Priestess' reputation as a keeper of secrets is perhaps a reflection of how little modern science yet understands about the underlying physics of the universe. Nonetheless, we may be guided by the Priestess' wisdom within ourselves to discover when it is advisable to passively allow these natural forces to work upon us, and when it is better to take a more active role in shaping our own destiny.

One deck to bring more of these ideas to the forefront of its imagery is Norbert Loshe's Cosmic Tarot. In Loshe's design, the Priestess' sagacious visage is surrounded by and blended with examples of ebb-and-flow symbolism. As in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, we see the crescent moon shape, but positioned more prominently; furthermore, Loshe has underscored its effect with the inclusion of the rippling waters revealed through the Priestesss' translucent face. We also see the symbols for Alpha and Omega on the Priestess' tome, and the yin-yang sign resting upon her forehead. Beginnings and endings, light and dark - these are some of the metaphorical poles between which our lives may "vibrate."

The Tower: Upheaval

The last stop in our selected survey brings us to rest at the "Tower" card (a.k.a "The Lightning-Struck Tower" and "The House of God"). It is a powerful, visceral image, and one whose essential symbolic components have seen less variation between their historic and contemporary renditions than in most of the other major arcana. Here, the presence of motion cannot be denied; sudden, violent, and irresistible, a burst of lightning rushes from the heavens, destroying the Tower's crown and sending its occupants tumbling headlong to the ground below. It is an undeniably unpleasant experience, but one that may be a vital corrective, if necessary change has been too long resisted. There are times when, if we refuse to take action on our own, then nature or circumstance may take action for us. Afterwards, when the dust settles, we are left with no choice but to pick up the pieces and try to move on.

We may be able to adjust to the Wheel's cycles, Death's transitions, or the High Priestess' ebb-and-flow but if and when we arrive at the Tower's door, our opportunity to adapt has passed. The disconcerting "lurch" of the Tower experience propels us forward (or perhaps backward, in some cases) in unexpected, uncontrolled ways before we finally come to rest again. Although it may be of little consolation to anyone who finds him- or herself caught in the midst of the Tower's furious energies, it is wise to remember sometimes great things are born upon the ashes of disaster, and chaos has its role to play in shaping the world in which we live.

In an interesting variation, Crowley and Harris' celebrated Thoth Tarot depicts the Tower as being destroyed from the bottom, rather than the top. Instead of a bolt of lightning, a demonic mouth rises from the ground, breathing fire, and therefore demolishing the Tower from its base rather than its summit. Thus, in the Crowley-Harris card, we are given a key to minimizing, or possibly even preventing, an unwanted "Tower event." By focusing on the base of the tower, Crowley and Harris remind us a weak foundation is frequently the harbinger of collapse. If we discover such "structural flaws" - be they at the base of a behavior, or an idea, or an institution - then we may have a chance to take the necessary remedial action before disaster strikes. Of course, it may also pay to consider the possibility that the behavior or idea or institution in question has outlived its usefulness, and that it may, in fact, be better to allow the Tower's energies to clear the landscape and make way for a new start.


Where there is life, there is motion. Every day brings with it the potential for new experience and radical change. While tarot is often employed to predict specific outcomes, its potential to identify larger trends and patterns should not be overlooked. If we make an effort to study the cards with an eye turned toward identifying metaphors of movement, we can create more context for our readings and meditations, and gain deeper insights each time we explore our journeys through tarot's symbolic lens.

Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.

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