Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Tower and the Gate of Hell

The Tower, RWS
The Tower, RWS

What Can be Learnt From the Tarot's Tower Card?

by Race MoChridhe 

Few cards in the tarot inspire such unease as the Devil. Its chained figures speak of bondage to materialism, to ignorance, and to despair. It comes uninvited, and yet desperately needed, to tell us of dark powers that hold us in thrall, whether or not one chooses to believe in demonic agents. And yet I have many times seen a face darken still more when the Tower is drawn, as though one might reach/make d├ętente with hell, but the Tower is the sure sign of one’s undoing—a fall into outer darkness.

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In Japan, Buddhist teachers speak of two paths to enlightenment: the path of jiriki, or ‘self-power’, attaining enlightenment through one’s own efforts, and that of tariki, or ‘other-power’, seeking the aid of a Buddha through prayer and invocation. Both paths are generally accepted, but different schools focus on one or the other. Zen, for example, teaches jiriki, and reminds other schools that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The Pure Land schools, on the other hand, teach tariki, and remind Zen students at the feet of their masters that they, too, have sought another’s aid upon the path.

In the more narrative and pictorial West, what Buddhism relates in concepts, Judeochristianity relates in characters. Other-power is perhaps perfectly exemplified in the figure of Abraham, whose every decision was guided by the voice of God, and whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Self-power, then, may seem at first to find its biblical expression in Abraham’s archnemesis, Nimrod—the giant who built the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens by human effort alone, the destruction of which is depicted on the tarot’s sixteenth trump in many decks.

The Devil, RWS
The Devil, RWS

At first glance, the message would seem to be clear and in stark contrast to Buddhism—reliance upon God (tariki) is the path to enlightenment, while reliance upon the self (jiriki) leads to disaster and to destruction. Which of us does not, upon laying out the Tower, tremble just a little at the thought of the judgements our hubris might deserve? And yet the message, like the biblical story itself, is subtler than we give it credit for.

In the absence of any statement of his motives in Genesis, we often assume that Nimrod built his tower to reach heaven, but the Jewish historian Josephus read the tale differently: “He [Nimrod] also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to reach.”

Nimrod’s tower was not simple effrontery; it was an insurance policy. In building a tower to escape death, however, Nimrod was also building one to escape change, to escape renewal, to escape the cleansing passage of all that no longer serves, for (as any tarotist will well appreciate) these are the true significations of death. Nimrod’s story is not a simple warning against the pride of relying on self-power; it is a reminder that relying too heavily on self-power can sometimes lead us into narrow interests, blocking the grace of other-power, which so often uses precisely such “deadly” forces. It is a plea, sharp and strong as a lightning bolt, to leave one hand open as we climb to heaven, ready to receive whatever may fall from above, including rain.

Indeed, in some decks the biblical episode depicted on the card is not the fall of the Tower of Babel, but instead the Harrowing of Hell—an act of other-power par excellence. In many Eastern Orthodox depictions, Christ stands atop the ruined gates of hell—the very walls against other-power that Nimrod erected in his resistance—and holds Adam and Eve each by the wrist rather than the hand, showing that man cannot save himself, but is wholly dependent on God to make good his escape from the fence that pens him in with Satan. And yet the grip upon their wrists cannot help but call to mind the fetters of the fifteenth trump. Thus we learn that all servitude is not slavery, as Christ Himself taught when he asked us to “Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

Is there then still nothing good to say of self-power? God forbid. Even Paul counseled to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Perhaps what being held by the wrist signifies is that, even when other-power seems to have decided for us, we still have our hands free to reach where we will. What divine decree could seem more final than the Flood? And yet Joshua called upon the people to “choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods that your fathers served which were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites … but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15). Even as God saved a remnant, that mankind might still be able to choose Him, even after the waters had settled they remained free to choose the gods they had worshipped before.

If the Devil, then, gives us a sign of the powers into whose hands we have delivered ourselves, the Tower reminds us that we are chained only by the wrists, and might still stretch out our own hands to different energies. It remains in our own power to choose what other powers we might be delivered to, and in this, far from being a judgement, the Tower is an invitation to repent, well deserving of its alternate name in the Tarot de Marseille—“La Maison-Dieu”, the House of God.

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