I’ve decided to feature occasional chapters from SOUL FOREST . When I thought about it, it was instantly clear which one would have to come first.
Recently, a woman named Laurie Hoogland wrote to me with a daring request. She had been reading my book, The Forest of Souls, with its various Wisdom Readings, in which I used the Tarot to explore kinds of questions we usually do not ask the cards, such as how God created the universe, or the meaning of resurrection. Laurie thought about her own great concern of the past few years, the Nazi Holocaust, and wondered if I might do a spread that somehow would help us find a way to grasp this incomprehensible horror.
The sad truth is that genocide is not really all that uncommon. In just the last few years we have seen a monstrous example in Rwanda, and before that, in Yugoslavia. And yet, the Nazis seem to have a special place. Perhaps it’s the fact that it happened in a country thought of at the time as the most civilized, most cultivated, most advanced in the world. If they could fall to such savagery what hope was there for anyone? Or maybe it was simply the cool efficiency, the calm logistical planning that went into it.
The Nazis did not target only the Jews. In fact, the Romany (Gypsies) lost a higher percentage of their population than the Jews. And great numbers of Catholics, homosexuals, and leftists also died. But it’s also true that Hitler and his people set up the entire apparatus specifically to kill the entire Jewish people. So the Holocaust also culminates-though sadly, not ends-thousands of years of murderous anti-Semitism. I decided, however, that I would not focus primarily on the question of Jewish deaths, or even, really, German actions, but rather on the question of how we comprehend what seems truly beyond human comprehension.
I decided to set down a group of five questions that I myself would choose, and then choose cards at random to suggest four more questions. This is a practice that I have developed both for Wisdom Readings and personal spreads. I do it when I am not sure just what to ask. The process is very simple: shuffle the deck in your usual way, and then pick cards in the same manner you would do for a reading. I decided to take three cards from the top of the pile plus the bottom card.
When you have chosen the cards, look at the pictures and see what questions they suggest to you. Then return the cards to the deck, shuffle and turn over cards in the normal way for your answers.
Here are the five questions I chose from my own thoughts:
5 Questions chosen ahead of time
1. What are the roots?
2. How did it grow from those roots?
3. What truth is revealed?
4. What truth is hidden?
5. How does it change us?
The cards that turned up after the shuffle were Speaker of Birds, 8 of Birds, and 2 of Birds, from the Shining Tribe Tarot, designed and drawn by myself. The Birds suit (Swords in traditional decks) deal with issues of ideas, conflict, suffering, truth, prophecy, art.
All three of these cards deal in some way with speaking, the first by its very name, the second because it shows a woman struggling to regain her identity and express herself clearly, the third because it implies silence and denial.
The Speakers in the Shining Tribe deck are like the Kings, but they have less to do with authority than with communication, and the responsibility to share wisdom and power with others.
The 8 of Birds was inspired by a poem by the Muskogee (Native American) poet Joy Harjo. Harjo writes how Native peoples (and nature itself) have lost their language, and thus the power to express clearly what has happened to them. It shows a woman before a volcano, as if for the pain and fury that have built up within her. The volcano contains a house, and above it jagged lines that symbolize anger. On the door of the house, an eye symbolizes memory.
The 2 of Birds shows two birds who steadfastly refuse to look at each other, as if to deny the other’s existence. A snake, however, binds them together. There were many questions we might ask inspired by this card but I chose the issue of denial
4 Questions inspired by cards chosen from the deck:
1. Speaker of Birds:
How can we speak about it?
2. 8 of Birds
How can we bring the pain out from within us?
3. 2 of Birds
What do we deny?
The card on the bottom of the deck was the Gift of Rivers(roughly equivalent to the Queen of Cups). This card represents the Gift of love, of healing. The picture shows a bowl for the Holy Grail, resting at a place where two rivers meet to become one. For many people the Holocaust, so enormous, becomes an almost personal nightmare from which they cannot awaken. It requires some energy from outside, a kind of grace, to liberate us.
4. Gift of Rivers
What gift will redeem us?
Just as the question cards were mostly Birds, the element of Air, and the qualities of thought and speech, so here the first four cards all are Trees. Trees represent Fire, the basic energy of life. But they also imply the Holocaust, for the word originally means a great fire (it actually derives from a burnt offering to the Gods, and means literally something that is completely burned). And of course, the suit of Trees responds to the imagery of roots, and what grows.
1. What are the roots? Knower of Trees
2. How did it grow from those roots? 9 of Trees
3. What truth is revealed? 10 of Trees
4. What truth is hidden? 6 of Trees
5. How does it change us? Fool
What are the roots?
The Knower of Trees (Knight of Wands, but with a larger context of meaning) seemed at first an odd image to get for the roots of such a great disaster. The card symbolizes joy, and a willingness to embrace all of life, with its many paradoxes. We might say that the roots come from a tendency to embrace a kind of destructive passion, without any conscious distance that would enable people to realize what they are doing. Many people see the Nazis as having been in love with their own destruction as well as the destruction of the people they victimized.
In fact, this card only really becomes clear when we look at the next one.
How did it grow from those roots?
In the 9 of Trees we see an image of a woman, a Goddess actually, who has split off her own darkness and projected it onto an enemy. Thus, we might say that the roots of all human experience lie in the willingness to embrace life, but when we split off the frightening parts of ourselves then something terrible grows from those roots.
The picture in the 9 derives from a myth of the Goddess Inanna, in Ancient Sumeria. Inanna left the Gods and came to live among humans. We might say, in fact, that the previous card, the Knower, showed us Inanna when she was Queen of Heaven, but also of Earth, with her face filled with stars, and her body in all of nature. The poem describes Inanna as “the morning star and the evening star.”
To believe that she has somehow left heaven to dwell in the world already creates dangerous illusions. In the myth, Inanna had a lovely tree that she visited every day. One morning she came to the tree and discovered it invaded, by a snake (very similar here to the snake on the 2 of Birds), a bird, and a dark figure named Lilith. People will know the name Lilith as a Jewish sexual demon. Medieval Jews projected a lot of their anxieties and guilts onto Lilith. But the image goes back much further; in fact, the poem about the tree is probably the oldest known written work in human history, composed by a princess in the Sumerian court. Inanna becomes disconsolate and helpless, and this is what we see in the card.
Because this is so old a story we can say that the Holocaust comes from very ancient roots in Indo-European culture. In fact, the Nazi myth of the Aryan race comes from the idea of original pure tribes who gave rise to all of European culture. But we also can say that the Holocaust grows when people take their own dark energy and project it onto some imagined demonic group. And further, when others, both the victimized and those who watch on, believe themselves helpless to fight back.
What truth is revealed?
The following card continues the Trees suit, and in fact, shows us the very next card, the 10. Thus, the “truth” that is “revealed” does indeed come out of the Holocaust experience itself. Here we see a sense of renewal. The ten actual trees of the title appear lined up behind the large center tree. In this reading we might describe the ten as all the terrible events. But the center tree is vibrant, with new branches transforming into spirits. This seems to me a very positive statement. It says that through the Holocaust new life actually became possible. We realized that the thousands of years of racial hatred and scapegoating had brought us to such a terrible place we needed finally to put them behind us. It may not have worked fully, but a new ideal has come into the world.
What truth is hidden?
The 6 of Trees depicts the very idea of hidden things. A cartoonish woman makes her way through a strange forest of trees painted with owl eyes and symbols. Below the ground lie more mysterious images. She moves confidently, without stopping to investigate, but also without personal doubt or fear. The Holocaust, in its great horror, contains more fearful truths than we might wish to acknowledge. But perhaps we need to keep moving and not get trapped in its nightmares.
How does it change us?
The Fool carries the idea of “keep moving” to an archetypal level. Card 0 speaks to us of freedom, especially freedom from the past. We become childlike, unafraid to leap into the unknown. In some ways, the only way to overcome, or escape, the Holocaust, is to liberate ourselves from the long history that created it, to become “nothing,” no-thing. In the 8 of Birds we sit and struggle with it. In the 6 of Trees, we don’t stop and look for fear of what we will see. But in the Fool we allow ourselves to become free, to embrace life as if fresh and new.
Questions “chosen” by cards:
6. How do we speak about it? Speaker of Rivers
7. How can we bring it out from within us? Place of Rivers
8. What is denied? 8 of Rivers
9. What gift will redeem us? Lovers
How do we speak about it?
The question comes from the Speaker of Birds, and now the answer is the Speaker of Rivers. In fact, just as the first group were all Birds, and the second nearly all Trees, so now we get mostly Rivers. In this card we tell our stories, and the stories of others. We speak of emotions, and feelings, not just facts. The large fish’s tail bears a quotation from the Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who gave up didactic teaching and told stories. He said “And on the way I told a tale of such power that all who heard it had thoughts of returning to God.” Thus, we tell the stories of the Holocaust, not as horror but as ways to remind us to turn to the divine. Nachman also said once “The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid.”
How can we bring the pain out from within us.
The Place of Rivers (Page of Cups) shows someone willing just to sit and look into the darkness. Unlike the 8 of Birds (the inspiration for this question, and also an image of sitting), the androgynous figure does not try to figure it out, or discover the correct way to think about it. Instead s/he simply looks into what is fearful from a place of peace and acceptance.
What is denied?
The 8 of Rivers shows a group of people in joyous procession. The Holocaust can make people forget that joy exists within us, or that we can join together in celebration. Like the 8 of Cups in many decks, this is a card of leaving things behind. The people here, however, have not simply abandoned something, but have taken on sacred identities; the picture was inspired by photos of African dance rituals. And so we do not deny something terrible but something powerful, our ability to rejoin with others and with the spirits. Notice that the 2 of Birds, which inspired the question, showed two figures who would not look at each other, and here the three dance together.
What gift will redeem us?
The Lovers seems the perfect card for the question and the end of the reading. Profound and moving, it shows us the Tarot’s fundamental optimism. Love will redeem us, love will rescue us from despair and lift us into the heights. This version of the card shows a passionate embrace between a human and an angel, or spirit. Love the people in your life, love the divine energy that animates all of us. Jesus said that the essential teaching of the Law was to love God and love your neighbor. Both come from the Torah (the five books of Moses): “You shall love the Infinite your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Torah also tells us-the most repeated commandment, appearing more than thirty times-“Love the stranger,” that is, the foreigner, the people we tend to see as the enemies, or the scapegoats, or the demons. All these kinds of love lie in this card, as well as the simplest love that redeems us, the passionate love of the people closest to us.