“With a mysterious smile on his face,” writes the Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky, “the painter whispered to me:” What you have just dictated to me is the secret. Since each Arcana is a mirror and not a truth in itself, you become what you see in it. This tarot is a chameleon. “
This comes from Jodorowsky The book of tarot;; The painter in question is Leonora Carrington, the UK-born surrealist from Mexico City who is famous in life and death for both her weird, fascinating writings and her visual arts. And that quote appears in another book, Fulgur Press The Tarot by Leonora Carringtonwho reproduced their newly discovered illustration of the Major Arcana. The tarot is a chameleon, yes, but as Carrington’s vision shows, it is also a chance to impose and abandon the narrative. In Carrington’s hands, as in her fiction, lies an embrace of the illogical, the fictional, the dream.
Here the fool, the beginning of the deck. Card zero. The man steps into the unknown with his hand. Some Tarot readers call the arc of the Major Arcana the Fool’s Journey, the deck itself the story of this man’s path, a metaphor for the human condition. The palette is blue and borders turquoise. some kind of animal – a dog? a goat? – runs alongside the man and nibbles on his thigh. Even in Carrington’s fiction, animals and humans always interact in strange ways that blur the lines between the two. “Her bathrobe was made of living bats,” says her short story “The House of Fear”, while in “Cast Down by Sadness” a character proclaims: “I have a dress made entirely of cats’ heads.” . ”In“ When They Rode Along the Edge ”a woman loves a handsome, doomed boar under a mountain of cats. When she gives birth to “seven little boars”, she keeps the one that is most similar to his deceased father, kills the others and cooks them “for herself and the cats as a funeral feast”.
The tarot calls for a similar sense of porosity. Technically, you shouldn’t be buying a deck for yourself. To prepare your new cards, sleep with them near or under your pillow so that the dream stuff in your head can get onto all seventy-eight cards. The tarot consists of two types of cards, the major arcana and the minor arcana. Think of the major in terms of Jungian archetypes, great energies, characters borrowed from myths around the world and repeated. The minor, which is made up of four decks – Cups, Wands, Pentacles, and Swords, possibly derived from a Renaissance Italian card game – can be seen as the lower echo of the same powers that the Major Arcana embodies. I bought all of my own decks, which may be unfortunate, but I was in the mood to take fate into my own hands. This is how it feels when I read for friends, as if I were mixing fates – as if Clotho were spinning their thread. “Use this as a guide,” I warn them. “It’s just a tool, a method of clarification. You still have free will.”
Carrington was aware of the power of free will. She took her fate into her own hands when, at the age of twenty, she ran away with the artist Max Ernst and gave up the life of her wealthy family. “There is no real ending to this story,” concludes another of her stories, this one from the early 1950s. “There is no end because the episode is true, because everyone is still alive and everyone follows their fate.”
The element of choice is also present in her version of the lovers, that shady second meaning that is so often deliberately overlooked by those in search of love. A male figure stands between two women; A sharp-edged, faceless Cupid – after all, love is blind – prepares his decision sheet. The lovers – the card of twins, the twins with two faces – can be a card of passionate, intoxicating partnership, complementary energies and attraction in all its forms, but seldom is it a card of total devotion. Love and sex are not always in harmony with engagement and longevity, and this is part of the smoothness of lovers: the map of love, the map of choices, the possibility of paths diverging.
Carrington’s Hanged Man is one of the most beautiful versions I’ve ever seen, all purple and gold, with its strange message of surrender. The hanged man is also a map of the crossroads, of the pastime. It shows a man chained by his heels and hung upside down, as was once done to traitors in the Italian Renaissance. The pittura infamante, they called it: a “defamatory portrait” of a thief, a fraud, a fraudster. But I’ve also read about the card’s connection with Odin, this mysterious Viking god who hung himself upside down from a tree for three days to gain wisdom. Animal or human sacrifices made in Odin’s honor were also lined up in groups of nine by trees and swayed in eerie holy groves. Or maybe it’s a portrait of Judas, Christ’s betrayer. In Carrington’s version, the hanged man stares calmly out with a slight smile on his face. It’s a map of the thresholds, the doors, the change in the air – but not yet. It’s a card to hold decisions back and let time decide what it wants.
The hanged man always lets my thoughts wander to Hecate, the Greek goddess of the crossroads. also the moon. Likewise, the Moon – that is, the card with the number eighteen in the deck. Carrington’s depiction of the moon is silvery and is dominated by two: two towers that look like the upright, not-yet-fallen version of the tower, the map of destruction and necessary change; two dogs howling; Two pincers of a scorpion – Scorpio? – rose at the two points of the crescent as it connects with a full circle. Something strange always happens when there is a full moon, a kinetic energy in the air. We all know but cannot explain. Yesterday morning a friend told me that she had just realized what day she had had a big argument with her partner last month. She had checked her diary and calendar. She couldn’t believe it. The full moon.
Writing, like tarot and painting, is an attempt to impose order on what is fundamentally out of order. But even the results of these transformations, these transubstantiations, this alchemy of turning thoughts into a more concrete form of expression, cannot completely escape their origins. Freudian slip-ups, word games, free associations, automatic writing, automatic drawing – the unconscious raises its head. And so a story has to be put together from the symbols shown during a tarot reading. The most famous type of tarot spread, the Celtic Cross, features past, present, the immediate future, one’s motivations, someone else’s motivations, and the bottom line. The ten cards are nothing like the structure of fiction.
I drew a tarot card just before I wrote this paragraph. I wanted an answer, even though the question was abstract, something like: What should I know to finish this essay? After mixing, if it felt right – you only knows– I drew the three of swords and took a sharp breath. This is not a card that appears in Carrington’s Tarot – it’s from the Minor Arcana – but the second card I drew as a clarifier, the star, is.
The Three of Swords is literally a card with endings. It is most often associated with the end of a romantic relationship, betrayal, and in its traditional imagery, three swords pierce a heart. It’s not a particularly lucky card. But the star, often associated with Aquarius, conveys a message of hope. In Carrington’s golden-blue imagination, a woman pours two jugs of water into the ground. It’s beautiful, but also a little strange. When combined, the message of these two cards is clear, isn’t it? Time to finish the damn essay. And with it – Finis.
Rhian Sasseen is the engagement editor of The Paris Review. Your work was published in 3: AM Magazine, Literary center, The nation, and more.