Saturday, October 7, 2017

Putting the Tarot's Star in Context: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

The Thoth Star card
Crowley/Harris, Thoth "The Star" tarot card

Quite Telling of Each other - The Tarot's Star Card and this Astrological Age

by Race MoChridhe

The Star is, unquestionably, one of the best-loved cards in the Tarot. Across multiple decks, it is routinely voted “most beautiful”, and I have yet to meet the reader who does not breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing it, taking comfort in its traditional meanings of peace, inspiration, guidance, and hope.

Hope, however, is a complicated thing. The name of the infamous Pandora originally meant “all-giving”, and it appears that the earliest version of her tale cast her as a goddess bringing humanity a jar of blessings. The Greek poet Hesiod, however, reinterpreted her as “all-gifted”—a divinely crafted seductress whose irresistible charms led man to ruin when she opened a jar (“box” is a Renaissance mistranslation) of curses from the gods, unleashing pestilence upon the world and leaving only hope inside. Interpreters have argued over the story’s end for 2500 years. Why was hope left at the bottom of the jar? Did the jar seal hope off from humanity or prevent its flying away, so that humanity might keep it? Most importantly, is hope a blessing that empowers us to endure the jar’s myriad of evils, or is it a curse—a false hope that only increases our torments?

Our world today certainly seems to have more of this latter kind of hope than it does of the former. The hope of our time has best been described as a vague “progress-ism” which assumes that, despite all setbacks, the natural trajectory of all science and scholarship, all politics and economics, even all spirituality and morality, is “up” or “forward” (with the relative direction of these terms being defined by whichever demagogue happens to suit the moment). To the adherents of this unusual ideology—unknown anywhere in the world before the Renaissance and anywhere outside Europe before the “Enlightenment”—the Star’s traditional association with the sign of Aquarius seems the consummation of hope. The incoming Age of Aquarius, held by a majority of astrologers to have begun sometime in the 20th century, is widely held to be, in the words of the musical Hair, a time of “Harmony and understanding / Sympathy and trust abounding / No more falsehoods or derisions / Golden living dreams of visions / Mystic crystal revelation / And the mind’s true liberation”. This is to put something of a gloss on the raw data, however.

More soberly expressed, the common attributes of the Aquarian Age are usually given as some variant of this list: electricity, computers, flight, democracy, freedom, humanitarianism, idealism, modernization, nervous disorders, rebellion, nonconformity, philanthropy, humanity. The dire implications of some of these, such as nervous disorders, are already evident enough to require no further comment. Many of Aquarius’ more insidious elements, however, have not yet come to be commonly recognized.

The Piscean Age was a time of deep feeling (as befits a water sign). Life was, in consequence, intensely personal. In the West, the family was the dominant social institution, the economy and the bulk of social services were in the hands of local guilds and church institutions, and political power was mediated by bonds of personal loyalty. It was also, in keeping with the mutable and dual nature of the sign, a period in which human beings were understood as bridging the spiritual and the material worlds. For this reason, political thought was largely dyarchic, seeing both the spiritual and temporal authorities as working best when in balance with one another.

The Star, tarot
Rider Waite Smith, "The Star" tarot card

As the copious efforts of medieval copyists to preserve ancient literature attest, even the Pagan and Christian inheritances of Western culture were reconciled in a view well summarized by Nicolás Gómez Dávila, who wrote that “Paganism is the other Old Testament of the Church”. The Piscean world strove to balance the vaultingly universal with the intensely personal, the transcendentally spiritual with the avowedly worldly, and faithfulness to the past with authenticity in the present. It left us the great cathedrals and the romances of the troubadours by which to pass judgement on its efforts.

The Age of Aquarius can only be understood by contrast, because this close to its inception, its qualities are less absolute values than they are movements relative to the Piscean order. It is a time of rationalization and abstract intellect (as befits an air sign), in which the arts have decayed and spirituality has become scorned. It claims to care deeply for “humanity”, but exhibits no patience with the particularity and diversity of flesh-and-blood human beings, presiding over the most rapid and violent extinctions of languages, religions, and folkways in human history. It has desacralized the family, broken the guilds, and usurped the personal loyalties that once gave security and meaning to human life, replacing them with a vast, impersonal bureaucracy that regards its subjects as so much human livestock, devoid of any need or aspiration beyond being dry and well fed.

The Aquarian narrowing of human vision to the purely intellectual has prized rationality and efficiency over the sacrality and aesthetic of traditional craft, and thereby devalued the working woman and man. It is in the attempted remedies to this crisis that the astrologically “fixed” nature of Aquarius has become most apparent. In place of the Piscean reverence for human heritage and humility before nature (human and otherwise), which promoted a certain measure of flexibility in the thinking of that time, the Aquarian world believes itself the culmination of history and proclaims itself lord over a dead universe, imagining that all problems can be resolved by an ever more intense exploitation of the natural world and by the rigidly universalistic enforcement of materialist values and ideals that, in their reductivism, are regarded as immutable laws of nature. Chief among these is mass democracy—the conversion of organic communities into atomized electorates, the replacement of local leadership by the “will of the people” on an abstracted national scale, the reimagining of responsibilities to others as rights for oneself—a sickness peddled as a cure.

Such Aquarian traits as flight and humanitarianism have thus not found their expression, as the writers of Hair were still able to hope in a swelling of human unity, at the vision of the earth from space, but instead have come upon the plane of manifestation as relentless bombing campaigns against Iraq, Libya, Syria, and a dozen other nations in a quixotic bid to rain freedom down in shell casings. If the reader thinks this vision unduly pessimistic, she may consider for herself whether as much of the Age of Aquarius as she has experienced answers better to the promises of Hair or to the predictions of the Australian astrologer Robert Ziller, who has suggested that “the Pisces world… will be replaced in the Aquarian Age by a world ruled by secretive, power-hungry elites seeking absolute power over others… knowledge in the Aquarian Age will only be valued for its ability to win wars… knowledge and science will be abused… the Aquarian Age will be a Dark Age in which religion is considered offensive” (“The Use of Archetypes in Prediction,” The FAA Journal 32.3, September 2002, pp: 37–53).

There is a certain sense, then, in which the hope offered by the Star is a curse—a false hope that the evils of pollution can be fixed by more industry, or that the evils of political instability can be cured by further regime change—follies that have their more personal reflections in readings for clients who are taking out loans for a Ph.D. because their Master’s degree in the same subject was unemployable, or who are thinking of having a baby to fix their broken marriage. In the sequence of the major arcana, the Star is followed directly by the Moon—a card traditionally associated with fear, illusion, and bewilderment. Joan Bunning writes of this transition that, “his [the Fool’s] bliss [coming from the Star] makes him vulnerable to the illusions of the Moon. … In his dreamy condition, the Fool is susceptible to fantasy, distortion, and a false picture of the truth.”

As I look at the Star amidst the failures of progress-ism, however, I find myself paradoxically inspired by another kind of hope—the hope that is implicit in despair. It is a truism of pop psychology that people do not change until it becomes too painful to stay the same. It is only when the Fool is well and truly lost in the moonlight that he realizes that the Star has not guided him, and only then that he can turn from it and begin to perceive that what appeared as darkness while he was striving toward the unobtainable light of a far-off sun, is in fact the reflected light of his own proper star. Once he turns his vision from the Star to the Moon, he finds the Moon transfigured, in his new and deeper spiritual perception, into the Sun.

Such is the epiphany of one who moves back from the big city to her small hometown, or who stops chasing some dream job upon realizing that he can find contentment in the career to which fortune has led him. Perhaps someday it will also be the epiphany of a world that turns its back on industrialism and mass politics, and douses its electric lights so that it can, once more, behold a blanket of real stars.


llustrations from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck®, known also as the Rider Tarot and the Waite Tarot, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA. Copyright ©1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited. The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck® is a registered trademark of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

RWS image is a Wikimedia file from a 1909 deck originally scanned by Holly Voley

Thoth image copyright (c) US Games Systems Inc.; AGMuller; O.T.O.

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