Recently the wonderful Thalassa, founder of BATS (Bay Area Tarot Symposium), the longest running tarot conference in the world, shared on Facebook that she had to cancel her class on “problem cards” due to laryngitis.
We–the members of her group, Daughters of Divination– started to play with this idea, suggesting that maybe these cards that we all tend to find scary–Death, the Devil, some of the Swords cards–were blocking her from helping people to overcome their fear of what they meant. I suggested placating them by calling them something nice, and billing her workshop as turning fiends into friends.
That got me thinking about the ancient practice, found in so many cultures, of calling frightening forces by pleasant euphemisms. The term “Fairies” is usually said to be derived from “fair folk,” a reference to dark elemental powers that are not evil but certainly not friends of humans.
Possibly the strongest example is “The Kindly Ones,” or Eumenides, a very pleasant term for terrifying beings whose true name, Erinyes, is usually translated as Furies. In Ancient Greece the Furies were seen as creatures of darkness and blood. They came out of the ground to terrorize anyone who broke primal laws, especially the killing of a mother. Calling them Kindly Ones was a way to placate these terrible Furies, in the hope that they would stay away.
But there is more to it than that. In Aeschylus’s great trilogy, the Oresteia, the Furies pursue Orestes, who has killed his mother after she murdered her husband, Orestes’s father. Orestes did this under orders of Apollo, but the Furies couldn’t care less. They hound Orestes into madness until finally he comes to the Goddess Athena, who saves him by holding the first trial by jury, in which Orestes is found not guilty.
Athena then turns to the Furies. Instead of sending them away, or fighting them, she gives them a new home, under Athens, as protectors of the city. They are still frightening–any rites done in their honor were done in silence, without songs, or poems of praise–but their power now goes to a positive purpose. The Erinyes have truly become Eumenides, Kindly Ones in fact and not just as a euphemism.
How can we use this myth in dealing with the cards that scare us in the tarot? First of all, we need to recognize that it doesn’t really address the energy of these cards to simply give them a “nice” interpretation. Take the Death card. It’s too easy to call it simply “Death-of-the-old-self” or jump right to “transformation.” The idea of something dying, of loss, of pain, needs to be addressed. Even if we say it’s probably not physical death, it still has a fearsomeness.
The Five of Cups in the Rider deck is another example. It shows someone cloaked in black looking down at three over-turned Cups, whose liquid has spilled out onto the dirt. Now it happens that two Cups stand upright behind him (some see the figure as a woman, and it’s interesting that the cloak of sadness hides any identification of gender), and many people just want him to turn around, see the unspilled Cups, and pick them up to go on with his life. This may be the goal, but right now the card shows sadness.
So how do we genuinely change these cards? One thing to do is to identify just what cards they are and what about them scares us. We can go through the deck and pick out those that cause us to tense up, or we know we’d rather not see in a reading, especially for ourselves. They might not be the same for everyone. A card that one person sees as great courage might strike another as overwhelming tension. A card that many people see as their worst fear might seem reassuring to someone else. For example, the famous Five of Pentacles in the Rider shows two wretched beggars, sick or inured, making their way barefoot through a snowfall, with a church behind them. While most fear this card, some appreciate the bond of the two people as they make their way together through hard times.
Once you have identified your Furies you can begin to explore just what it is that scares you about them. You can write down your understanding of them, perhaps make up stories about them, examine all the details that make up the picture, as well as confront your overall disturbance. Make sure to really look at what bothers them and not rush to make them safe or comfortable.
Set each one aside and shuffle the rest of the deck to ask such questions as “Where is the energy in this card?” ”What lies underneath it?” ”What does it ask of me?” Eventually you can ask “What will transform it?” but don’t try to go there right away. Make sure you understand it first, and what hold it has on you.
And when we think of the story we can realize another vital aspect–the need for justice. Athena does not chase away the Furies, or overpower them, or even cajole them. She first must address the crime, and the battle for Orestes’s soul being waged by the dark Earth Furies on one side and Apollo, the Sun God, on the other. Her invention of a jury trial takes it out of the arena of personal power and into the realm of justice.
So, for our own Erinye cards we need to ask, Where is justice in this card? Or maybe, what justice can transform it? What justice does the situation demand? Now, of course there is a card titled “Justice,” and you might want to set this card on the table when you work with any of your own group of fearsome cards. Or you might prefer to leave it in the deck, to see if it comes up. Here is another possibility–if one of your Fury cards turns up in a reading, or if you’ve just picked one out to work with it, search through the deck for the card of Justice. Then look at the cards on either side of it. Let these tell you what justice is needed to transform Fury into Kindness.