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.

Published in: on December 12, 2011 at 4:18 am  Comments (12)  

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  1. In a story the villain may not always be lovable, or may be the most lovable character, but nevertheless, is very necessary to the hero’s evolution…and so it is with the “kindly ones” as you call them. Being uncomfortable with writing true villains undoes many potentially great stories, and being uncomfortable with reading the hard cards undoes a useful reading. What I call Villain Voodoo is like spiritual acupuncture bringing a hero (or a querant) back into proper alignment. It is putting life into neutral again finally.

  2. This is a wonderfully appropriate post, Rachel…. thank you so very much!
    Long ago, at a Tarot Study Circle, we would do similar work…. the foundation that led up to working with the tough Cards included looking into our everyday circumstances, even the physical ones. For example, I had to walk through a particularly scary little neighbourhood everyday…. So, first I needed to analyse what felt scary. Then I had to look around and discover physical things that were opposite of that ‘scary’… and identify them as ‘pleasing’, and then, rename that neighbourhood for my reference by those pleasing sensations…. So, that street where young bikers using menace as entertainment hung around, became “Butter-gold Peace Lane” for me… because of the way the morning sunlight puddled under the trees!
    Thank you, Rachel…. This really works!

  3. This is such a great and useful post – thank you for sharing this, Rachel. One question though – how could I use this technique during a reading with a client? For example, let’s say the Death card comes up and they are freaking out – how would you turn this around and use it during a session with another person?

    • Thanks, Theresa. You might draw a couple of cards to illuminate the Death card, including the question of justice. Of course, you still should say it does not mean someone is about to drop dead! That’s of course the main fear people have, after all those scenes in movies and tv shows.

      • Those movies have created a real stigma around the Death card, Rachel. I still have clients that gasp when they see it.

        I usually do draw more cards if the client is freaking – but I’ll have to try to bring Justice into it. Thanks!

  4. Brilliant article. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful that you don’t try to tell us what the “Kindly” aspect is of these scary cards as it can be so different for each of us and at different periods of our lives. For many years I experienced the Empress as scary.

    On a more philosophical level, most of the scary cards in the Major Arcana are on the far side of the Hanged Man, indicating it is possible to see them from another point of view—either the material and the mystical.

    Anyway, there’s a wealth of deep work suggested in just this one short post.

    • Thank you very much, Mary, and everyone else. Mary, you raise a really interesting point about the dire cards in the Major Arcana coming after the Hanged Man, and that these can represent either the material or the mystical. Since these seem so opposite I think it shows the importance of point of view. I’ve written in the past (in my book Tarot Wisdom, and in an article in the magazine Parabola) about the possibility of seeing all the cards that come after Death as in fact what happens after physical death. So that’s one way to consider it. But we also might look at the two attitudes as going back to the Hanged Man. If we experience this card as suffering, or a block, or punishment, then we remain in the material realm, and so many cards after it become fearful. But if we experience the Hanged Man as a surrender to spiritual beauty, and a reversal of our previous values and awareness, then the journey through the higher cards becomes a spiritual one. It’s a very interesting dichotomy. But really, it’s not actually the Hanged Man that’s the crucial card, it’s Justice (at least in modern decks, where Justice is 11). Because we can only do the Hanged Man “right” if we have balanced the scales of Justice. So once again, overcoming the fearsome cards, turning Furies into Kindly Ones, comes back to Justice. “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” as the Bible says. Cause if you don’t, maybe Justice will pursue you?

  5. I am reminded of how Rianne Eisler, in The ‘Chalice and the Blade’, talks about the Greek drama, ‘Oresteia’, used to determine that ‘mother-murder’ is not a crime. Turing it around, Greek playwright Aeschylus claims that since Athena was born full grown from the head of her father, the moral question of mother-killing is moot, as “…the killing of one’s own mother is not the shedding of kindred blood”. This twisted conclusion brought about a male-dominated attitude that spread as quickly as Christianity. I can’t help but see the 5 of Pents in this instance as the old order being cast aside and the dominating force taking over.

    • The patriarchal bias of the play is a very important point, and indeed Aeschylus used the myth of Athena coming from Zeus’s head in a twisted way. I also like seeing the 5 of Pentacles in that way, as new power, especially religious, casting out the old, whether it be Greek patriarchy or the later Church that in my view, grew out of Greek culture much more than Judaean. At the same time, if all that the Oresteia amounted to was a bizarre justification for Greek misogyny (which was extreme in so-called enlightened Athens) it would never have remained so vital for some 2500 years. It’s worth noting that Apollo comes off as rigid and brutal in the play, divorced from any of the emotional effects of what he is forcing Orestes to do.

  6. Athena assigning the Furies the job of protecting Athens: this is like transforming the Inner Critic and other destructive voices into guardians. They just want to keep you safe but are going about it in a destructive manner. So you dialog with these critical voices, get to know what they want, and persuade them to protect you in a manner that doesn’t cripple your life.

    Justice energy really helps. Confronting these forces calmly and with detachment instead of going into your habitual reactions.

    There’s no better time than now, the dark of the year, to confront the shadow in these scary cards. Thanks, Rachel. You’ve inspired me to set aside some time to work with some of my favorite Furies.

  7. Rachel, many thanks for your wisdom. Here’s a thought. In circles that discuss magic – such as any transformation of Furies into Fenders may be – people stress the significance of hierarchy. The Devil, for instance, occupies a lower order, if not the lowest. If a pact is made, then the aim is to put the Devil to work, to employ him in one’s service, rather than become the Devil’s slave – which the unwise, or the forgetful ones end up as. In a way this is exactly what Athena does. Instead of questioning and fearing the power of the Furies, she designates a specific function for them. This is ultimately an act of genius on her part, as she shifts the focus on and attention to the uncontrollable to what CAN be controlled. In a way, this is exactly what makes the problem cards a problem, 1) that they emphasize situations that exceed our control, and because of that 2) they overrule our faith. So, yes, to call upon Justice is a very efficient way of dealing with how, through faith, we can acknowledge the presence of, say again, the Devil, and then say to him: yes, you’re here, do your job, and then get behind me.

  8. I love this, Rachel, because of course, we can’t make the dark things of life go away by pretending they aren’t there. But we can use the energy and gifts of them to empower us in new ways.

    And Justice brings back balance…

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