Over on TyrantOidipous.com I’ve posted my first Journal entry, a blog about my long-standing fascination with the play Oidipous Tyrannos (Oedipus Rex), which Davd Vine and I have just translated, as Tyrant Oidipous. I thought I would post it here as well. First, the link to the other site is here.

Recently on Facebook, Camelia Elias, publisher of Tyrant Oidipous, quoted one of her favorite moments from the play, when the blind seer Teiresias denounces Oidipous. The two of them have been jousting, sneering at each other, accusing each other, and Teiresias is about to leave when suddenly he states:

“I declare that unawares you live with those closest to you
in a shameful bond. You do not see that you are doing something evil.”

I was struck by her singling out this speech and wrote the following reply.

“Camelia, this is a wonderful moment to feature. Besides its inherent drama, it shows us the power of the oracular voice. Before this there has been a somewhat comic battle of egos between Oidipous and Teiresias, a kind of “Oh yeah? Well, take that!” But when Teiresias speaks as the seer something very different emerges, a divine aspect. It’s interesting that with so much on Delphi and the “message” from the oracle (as Oidipous puts it) we never actually learn the precise words of Apollo spoken by the Pythia (the woman who delivers the prophecy at Delphi). The only time we experience the real divine voice it’s through the seer.”

Now, thinking about this some more, I thought it might be interesting to explore the image of Teiresias.

Teiresias is portrayed in the play, and elsewhere, especially the Odyssey, as the very image of a seer. Originally the name may have described a whole class of people, diviners and what today we would call psychics. Mythology, the power of stories, has made Teiresias a single figure who appears in many tales. The name has various interpretations, and is sometimes translated (loosely) as “Delights in signs,” in other words, someone who goes deeply into the oracular experience. T. S. Eliot said that Teiresias was the secret hero of his great poem, The Wasteland, a true modern epic.

Teiresias has long fascinated me. Described as a blind hermaphrodite who sees everything, s/he would seem to be an alchemical figure who transcends ordinary humanity. There are various stories, some just jokes, really, of how Teiresias became a blind seer. One states that because he was first a man, then a woman, and then a man again, he was asked to judge an argument between Zeus and Hera over whether men or women enjoy sex more. In typical married couple manipulation, each one insisted the other side had the advantage. So they decided to ask the only person who had been both. Teiresias said that if enjoyment were ten parts, women would have nine and men one. Furious, Hera struck him blind, then Zeus, to compensate, gave him the power of oracular sight. This is clearly a kind of sit-com gloss on mythology!

Sophocles treats the issues of seeing, blindness, and knowing much more intensely. Oidipous ridicules Teiresias’s blindness, treating him as someone handicapped and therefore weak, despite Teiresias’s clear power. At the end of the play, after his own desire for the truth has made him see the reality of who he is and what he is done, Oidipoius blinds himself. Without conscious thought (he had a lot on his mind!) he has fulfilled the curse he earlier made on the killer he did not know was himself. No man of Thebes shall look upon the murderer’s face, he declared. Thus he puts out his own eyes, that he might never see himself in a mirror, a pool of water.

One of the stories about Teiresias, the sex changing, clearly points to esoteric practices, what I call alchemy. Supposedly a shepherd when young, Teiresias came across two snakes copulating. Some versions say he killed the female and became magically changed to a woman. Others, however, say that he thrust his shepherd’s staff—Tarotists might say his Wand—in between them, and was transformed.

A stick between two snakes forms the caduceus, the magic staff of Hermes, who uses it to guide dead souls on their journey (the association with the medical profession might be a mistake, for the healing wand of Aesclapious, founder of medicine, was a stick with one snake wound around it.

The caduceus forms an image of awakened kundalini, which yoga teachings describe as a snake at the bottom of the spine that uncoils as two streams wind around the spine until they reach the crown of the head where the energy opens into mystical light. The caduceus is pictured with wings at the top, and sometimes light.

Teiresias—or Teiresia, to use what would be the feminine version—lives seven years as a woman, seven being the number of the planetary spheres, and thus a complete cycle. Then, the myth tells us, she once again sees two snakes copulating and either repeats the trick with a staff, or once more kills one of them, the male this time, and again becomes a man.

All this can illustrate the deep mystery of kundalini, which is said to bring out the female in a man, the male in a woman (see also the famous Gospel of Thomas), producing a complete person, what the alchemists call The Crowned Hermaphrodite. The World card in the Tarot, symbol of perfection, is often associated with this figure.

A couple of years ago I had a chapbook of Tarot inspired poems published, Fortune’s Lover. The poem for The Lovers featured Teiresias and the caduceus. Here it is:


for Camelia Elias

He was out walking with the sheep

when he saw the snakes,

two of them, copulating. He pushed his

staff, his Ace of Wands,

between them and became, briefly,

the Caduceus, a spine of light

entwined with serpents.

And when the human stepped back she’d

become a woman.

Seven years passed, as she traveled

through the seven planetary spheres,

the seven palaces supported on seven wise pillars.

Then she saw the snakes again,

the same pair or another, it makes no difference,

she moved her Cup between them,

and became—

not a man again, but something

more, beyond addition and subtraction,

a Knower, a Speaker,

blinded by Hera, sighted by Zeus,

Teiresias, whose name means

The One Who Delights In Signs.

The card of the Lovers—

a man on the right, a woman on the left,

and above and between them an angel

with outstretched arms and fiery hair—

together they are all Teiresas,

bright Caduceus in a single life.

A Praise Poem For Teiresias

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you are always right.

You see beyond sight.

You see all the way through.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

You are always right.

Your body is snakes,

your face is wings.

your hair is plumage.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you question the owls,

they cannot refuse you.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

You know the secrets of men,

you know the secrets of women,

you know between and beyond,

above and below.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you taste the tongues of angels.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you are always right.

You open the door,

you see beyond windows.

You know all the meanings,

you know reversed and upright,

you know all the spreads.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

Published in: on March 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm  Comments (6)  

Supernal Ovations Uncover Lessons – A Spread for the Holocaust

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?

The Reading:

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.

Published in: on January 21, 2012 at 12:01 am  Comments (5)  
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As I write this it’s the evening of a lovely Christmas spent with friends. And that means it’s also Kwanza Eve, the night before Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is probably the most remarkable of the holidays held around the Winter Solstice/end of the year, because it was deliberately, consciously, created by a single person, Dr. Maulana Karenga. Dr. Karenga wanted to create something that would strengthen the African-American community, through a connection to traditional African values. He developed a 7 day holiday, from December 26 to January 1, with each day representing a special quality (see below). Candles are lit, each day a different color.

Being white, I know that Kwanzaa is not directed towards me or my background. But then, I’m Jewish, so celebrating Christmas is not exactly my background either! So the interest and respect I have for Kwanzaa is like that which I have for all spiritual traditions. (I have sometimes described myself as a goddess-loving radical Jewish atheist with a Taoist temperament, but recently, when I wondered what I might put down on a form that asked my religion the term that came right to mind was “heretic”).

A few years ago it struck me that Kwanzaa could form the basis of a powerful 7 day Tarot reading, drawing three cards each day (or however many you want) to answer a key question related to the theme of that day.

I hope it is clear that I mean no disrespect to any people who celebrate this marvelous week long holiday. I have been creating readings inspired by sacred holidays and festivals for many years now (my recent book, SOUL FOREST) contains a reading inspired by the coincidence of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah occurring at the same time). For me the Tarot is more than anything a tool of spiritual investigation. The issues named and defined by Dr. Karenga are obviously of special importance and power to his own community, the people for whom he created the holiday. But at the same time they are universal values, worth consideration by all peoples.

Here then is the statement of themes of Kwanzaa, and the reading to go with it.

(The Seven Principles)

Rachel Pollack
Based on the work and inspiration of
Dr. Maulana Karenga

Umoja (Unity)
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia (Purpose)
To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (Creativity)
To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani (Faith)
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
¬ Maulana Karenga

To be done over the 7 days of Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan.1)
(Candles may be lit for each day, and reading done by the light of the day.)

1. Umoja
How can I promote unity?

2. Kujichagulia
How do I claim who I am?

3. Ujima
How do I help others with their struggles?

4. Ujamaa
How can I help bring genuine prosperity?

5. Nia
How can I encourage the best in myself and others?

6. Kuumba
How do I express my creativity?

7. Imani
How do I deepen my belief, in myself and others?



You can purchase SOUL FOREST from Tarot Media Company by clicking here.

Published in: on December 26, 2011 at 4:05 am  Comments (5)  

Soul Forest: Twenty Four Tarot Writings is now available for Pre-Order!

Soul Forest is now in print and ready for pre-order from Tarot Media Company. Here is a excerpt from the Introduction just to give you a taste of this wonderful work.

“This book recounts a series of adventures. Like a character in a fairy tale, each month, for a couple of years, I would set out from my little cottage in the woods to explore the forest, or search underground caves for treasures. I would set out with hardly any provisions, but with my loyal dog Wonder beside me (I actually do have a dog named Wonder—sometimes allegories are true), and a map that changed every time I looked at it. That map was the Tarot.

Let’s switch metaphors. Any Tarot reading contains two components, with a third that connects them and brings them to life. The first is the question, for no reading can exist without one, even if the question consists of nothing more than “What’s going on today?” The second is the answer, which is to say the cards that come up when we shuffle the deck.

The third element, which joins the two and brings them to life, is the reader herself, or more precisely the reader’s intuition, intellect, and imagination. Without the reader’s response, Tarot cards don’t say anything at all, they are just mass-produced four color drawings on plastic coated card stock. But notice something here. It is not just up to us to interpret the answers, we also get to ask the questions. And this, as they say, is where it gets interesting. The Tarot becomes a treasure map when we ask it to show us treasures. In this book I have tried to ask the cards to reveal to us treasures of the soul.”

You can pre-order the book from Tarot Media Company and I will sign them. I am premiering it at San Francisco Tarot Symposium 20th Anniversary where I will be speaking and sharing more from this work on August 27 and 28, 2011. For more information about SFBATS click here.

Hope to see you there and I hope you enjoy Soul Forest.

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Interview from Fiona Tankard — PLUS – I get a reading!

Fiona Tankard, a British Tarotist who lives in Tuscany, interviewed me and in the course of it gave me a reading. very enjoyable.  You can listen to it here!

Tuscany is a kind of secret Tarot center. Hermann Haindl, who created The Haindl Tarot Deck Deck which I wrote about in The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth, has long had a house there, where I once celebrated New Year’s with him and his wife Erika. And Niki de St. Phalle‘s amazing Tarot sculpture garden is there. I visited the site twice while it was under construction, even spending a night in the Empress “card,” a Sphinx house, with the bedroom in the shoulder. Niki and I did a reading using the statues as the layout. It was quite something, literally walking through the actual spread!

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 1:00 am  Comments (1)  

Sometimes Facebook Gives Us Real Connections

I posted this on Facebook:

“Just had a book title pop into my head–The Eternal Gratitude of the Angelic Mind. Of course, it’s a play on that great movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but still a cool title, I think. Anyone want it? If you were going to write a book called The Eternal Gratitude of the Angelic Mind, what would it be about?”


And received this fabulous reply from Camelia Elias:

“In a way you already wrote that book with your Shining Tribe deck. This deck, unlike any other is all about high-mindedness, a form of wisdom that you urge us to exercise even before we get to the stage where we think that now we’re ready to exercise it.”


Published in: on April 3, 2011 at 8:52 am  Comments (2)  


I discovered Tarot—really, the Tarot discovered me—in 1970. At that time, I had a lifelong interest in mythology, and had occasionally looked at books of both mysticism and occultism—strangely, my home town library had a whole section of occult books that I read, without much understanding, as a teenager—but knew nothing of Kabbalah. I had never heard of the Tree. Through Tarot I learned of this wondrous image of the cosmos, and later worked out how to use it as a spread for readings that looked deeply at who we are. I first described how to use the Tree as a Tarot spread in my book 78 Degrees Of Wisdom. The spread can be done in a “short” form, with one card for each position, which is, of course, the usual way we do Tarot readings. But it also offers us the possibility to do a reading that uses all 78 cards. Over the years since 78 Degrees I have changed and developed some of the meanings I use for the positions in the spread. Now I’ve decided to offer this full deck spread as part of my reading practice. Below is some information about the Tree, the reading, and how it works.

The Tree of Life is an ancient Kabbalistic diagram of energy and its movements between the physical world and the divine. We all of us exist in different worlds at once, and the Tree, with its different levels, is a perfect way to envision and understand who we are, from our daily lives to our highest spiritual experiences. The spread shown below—which I have done for over thirty years—is a very powerful way to look at your whole self. Because it uses the entire deck of 78 cards it becomes not a question of which cards come up, but where they come up, and how they relate to each other. What emerges is a deep and powerful portrait of a person’s life and its possibilities, its joys and hardships, its difficulties and its triumphs.

Mystics have contemplated and studied the Tree of Life for centuries. Over the last two centuries Tarot has become increasingly identified with the Tree, almost like ivy covering the branches. The Tree contains ten positions called sephiroth (singular, sephirah). Because the sephiroth are often depicted as circles, some people assume a sephirah is a sphere, and this can be a useful way to visualize it. In fact, however, the word is derived from the Hebrew for sapphire, because each sephirah shines like a bright jewel of truth.

The Tree contains ten of these sephiroth, based upon a very old Hebrew teaching that says the universe was created with 22 letters (the Hebrew alphabet, often identified with the 22 “Major Arcana” of the Tarot), and 10 numbers. Not 9, we are told, and not 11. In Tarot we often see the ten sephiroth with twenty-two connecting lines, to show us the order of the Major Arcana (and their correspondences with the mystical energies of the Hebrew alphabet). For this reading, however, we will use only the ten sephiroth as the positions in the spread.

We draw the sephiroth as circles, but in fact they are radiant energy, each one an aspect of our existence. The Tree forms a perfect pattern of development. The energy moves from the wholeness and perfect unity of the Crown, sephirah 1, to the vibrant complexity of daily life in the world we see around us every day, known as sephirah 10, Kingdom.

10, not 9 and not 11. In fact, tradition teaches that an eleventh sephirah does exist, or rather has the possibility to exist, in a kind of gap between the top three sephiroth and the bottom seven. Because this sephirah, called in Hebrew Da’ath (in English, Knowledge), is more a possibility than a fixed state, I have given it the number 0 rather than 11. This reminds us that the “official” number of the sephiroth is 10. It also allows us to see the Fool as the image of Da’ath (just as we can see cards 1-10, the Magician to the Wheel of Fortune as representations of the main sephiroth). The Fool, and its 0 of nothingness, reminds us that we are never pinned down, we always the possibility of change. Da’ath thus becomes the line of transformation.

Here is the Tree, with the Sephirah in their places. The first name for each sephirah is the original Hebrew, the second is the same title in English.


Kether (Crown)


Binah (Understanding)


Hokmah (Wisdom)


Da’ath (Knowledge)


Geburah (Power)


Chesed (Mercy)


Tiphereth (Beauty)


Hod (Glory)


Netzach (Victory)


Yesod (Foundation)


Malkuth (Kingdom)

To use the Tree for a reading we need to “translate” these ideals into ways we look at our lives. There are, in fact, many ways to see the sephiroth as symbols of who we are. One is simply to look at the quality of the position and see how it can illuminate something about ourselves. Another is to relate them to what are called “planetary” energies, based upon the ancient astrological idea of the Earth, plus the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A quick count will show you that this comes to eight places. As the highest places on the Tree, the Crown and Wisdom, sephiroth 1 and 2, lie beyond the limitations of a specific planet (some people see 2 as the stars, and 1 as the cosmos as a whole, but these ideas are not that easy to translate into places in a Tarot spread). Because it exists more as transformation, Da’ath—Knowledge—also is not part of a specific planetary energy. The meanings below are possibilities. In the actual readings I do we work intuitively to understand the message of each line.

1. Kether/Crown—Highest spiritual level. Unity. Cards in this line should generally be interpreted positively, from a standpoint of growth, and reaching to a higher level. However, some cards may show what blocks you from that highest achievement.

2. Hokhmah/Wisdom—How are you wise? What in your life leads to wisdom? (Alternatively, this card may also show the influence of your father.)

3. Binah/Understanding—What is your understanding of the world? What have you learned? (Alternatively, this card may also show the influence of your mother. Also, the realm of Saturn—what is born out of going beyond limits.)

4. Chesed/Mercy—How are you generous? How has life been good to you? Again, some cards may show what blocks the good things in life. (Also, the realm of Jupiter, largeness of spirit.)

5. Geburah/Power—How has life been hard on you? What tests you, what crises must you face? How do you express your power? (Also, the realm of Mars, aggressive force.)

6. Tiphereth/Beauty—Where is there beauty in your life? What is at the center of who you are? (Also, the realm of the Sun, how you shine.)

7. Netzach/Victory—What are your victories? How do you direct your will? (Also, the realm of Venus, and thus the emotions.)

8. Hod/Glory—What is your glory? What’s special in your life? How do you share your victories with others? What good things do others see in you? (Also, the realm of Mercury, and thus the intellect.)

9. Yesod/Foundation—What is the foundation of your life? What’s at the base. (Also, the realm of the Moon, and thus the imagination, dreams, stories.)

10. Malkuth/Kingdom—What is your world in which you live and act? What is the effect of outside events, other people? (Also, the realm of Earth, and thus the body.)

0. Da’ath/Knowledge—How do you transform things in your life? What makes change possible? What do you know so deeply it can change your life?

How, then, do we use the whole deck to do this reading? The answer is actually very simple and very elegant. A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards. There is a tradition that tells us to start a reading by taking a single card from the deck, called a Significator, and setting it above the place where we will lay out the cards in their positions. Usually this will be a Court card, and because it represents the whole person, it does not get interpreted. There are many ways to choose the Significator in a specific reading, but the simplest is probably to lay out the sixteen Court cards and ask the person getting the reading to say which one attracts him or her the strongest (my own method, when I read for someone, is slightly more developed).

If we remove one card, we end up with 77. Since there are eleven positions in this spread (10 plus the 0 line of transformation), we end up with a perfect pattern of seven cards for each sephirah. Usually we set these seven out in a simple line, but of course it’s possible to play with how to place them. To illustrate this, here is how the top of the reading looks:


First position. Crown

Cards 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Third position. Understanding Second position. Wisdom
Cards 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 Cards 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Following the pattern of the Tree we lay out positions 1-10, and then at the very end, lay out the final seven cards for 0, Da’ath.

Using the entire deck, with seven cards for each position, rather than the usual one, leads to a very complex reading. In my experience, each line has its own quality, its own movement. Sometimes the energy flows from left to right, or vice versa. At other times there is a clear center, and the other cards radiate from it, or go to it. At the same time, we see themes and issues emerge, not just in each line, but in the Tree as a whole. A Tree of Life reading is complex, and subtle, with wonderful variations and movements of energy. And yet, it is often very simple, getting right to the heart of who a person is even as it shows so many different levels.

A Tree of Life reading with the whole deck runs around four hours. The cost is $500. To arrange an appointment, please contact Zoe Matoff by clicking here.

Please note: this reading is (c) 2011 by Rachel Pollack.

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 2:59 am  Comments (20)  

Two Fun Writings About Death

Well, they were fun for me to write. And, I hope, for people to read. Actually, it was not my intention to write about death, and in fact, the two works, a story and an article, are not really about the actual facts of dying, which do not seem to be very much fun at all. But I have long been fascinated by people’s fascination with the Land of the Dead, the various mythic and spiritual descriptions of the otherworld ruled over by Death, or just what happens to us.

I think it’s not a coincidence that in so many Tarot decks the Death card is the most striking and beautiful card. Our obsession with this question, our horror combined with intense curiosity, and our complete lack of actual knowledge, sparks artists’ imaginations. One of the odd qualities about this subject is the fact that so many religious and esoteric traditions indeed claim to have the word (or Word) on what happens to us after death, or what the Land of the Dead is like. But if this was in fact the case, if it was possible to actually know, wouldn’t they agree? If two groups of people travel to Cleveland and bring back detailed reports they will differ in many details, depending on their interests and what neighborhoods they visit, but the reports would likely be similar in important ways.

The two works are a story, “Forever,” which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in their May/June issue, still available, and “Death and Its Afterlives in the Tarot,” which was published a few weeks ago in the Summer 2010 issue of Parabola, whose theme was “Life After Death.” Both of these magazines are wonderful institutions in their respective worlds—F and SF in particular has been a leading force in speculative fiction since 1961, while Parabola is, I think it’s fair to say, the world’s premier journal of myth and spirituality. So I’m proud and delighted to be in their pages. I have to say, I’m also proud of the two writings.

“Forever” tells the story of the Goddess of Death, known in the story as Our Lady of Forever, who loses a bet with her sisters, Ocean and Sky. The bet was to see who could predict what would happen in a year’s time to a particular mortal, whom Forever could choose. I won’t say what the predictions are, or just how Forever loses, but lose she does, and the penalty is to inhabit the body of a human woman for one day. The easiest thing in the world, Death thinks, until she actually enters the woman, who is having lunch with her boss in a coffee shop. Almost the moment that she slips inside, the Goddess forgets who she is. When she does regain knowledge of her true self it’s only to be forced to make a terrible choice. The story is short, only fourteen pages, and yet I worked for months on it.

The Parabola article comes from material I’ve been developing for some time, including in my book Tarot Wisdom. When the Death card appears in a Tarot reading, modern readers leap to tell our clients that it is not predicting someone’s sudden death. This is because the Death card is an absolute staple of melodramatic movies with a character who reads the cards. These days it’s used in such stories even more often than the Devil. So it’s right to make sure people know it’s not the most dire news. Some decks even change the name, calling it, for example, “Transformation.”

But if we look at the older meanings given for this card (as I did in Tarot Wisdom) we discover that the interpretations are very direct. Death. Death. Death.

Suppose we take the card literally, not as a prediction, but as a statement of the one true thing we know about our lives. We all die. Well, fine, but if the Death card signifies the end of our lives, what about the fact that there are eight cards after it? The so-called Major Arcana, the named and numbered trump cards which run from 1, The Magician to 21, the World (along with the Fool, originally unnumbered, now designated 0 in many modern decks), gives us Death as 13.

Eight cards follow: Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgement, and the World. What if these cards outline for us what happens after we die?

This was the subject of my article in Parabola. The title was “Afterlives” because the cards seem to outline not one path after death, but at least two, depending on our ability to get through the frightening chaotic experiences shown in the Devil and the Tower.

While writing the article I had an interesting thought. The original ideas behind the Major Arcana, and their arrangement, are lost to us. There are no shortage of educated guesses, some that make a lot of sense. But the fact remains that we have no account from anyone at that time as to just these pictures would have conveyed to people at that time. Thus, in a sense the Tarot as a system of ideas “died.”

In the 18th century, however, a whole new system took hold, the occult interpretation of the Tarot as an ancient book of wisdom. Out of this came the widespread use of the cards for divination as well as symbolic teachings, and then the modern psychological view. We might call of this the Tarot’s afterlife—or afterlives, since there is no single way of seeing and using the cards, but many varied approaches.

Two works about death, two works about the afterlife. I hope people enjoy reading them nearly as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 6:42 am  Comments (5)  

My Top Ten (Sort Of) Influential Books, Part 2

In Part One, I got up to nine titles, which I figured was about half the planned Top Ten. The rules, you’ll remember, are that these are not necessarily my favorite books (though most certainly are), or the ones I consider the best, but the ones that have influenced me. I take influence to mean an effect on my writing, my teaching, but also my life. So I’ll begin with a couple from the last category.

Clarence Darrow for the Defense-Irving Stone. I discovered this in high school, and then read all the Darrow books I could find, especially Attorney for the Damned, a collection of his summations to juries and other public speaking. It wasn’t just Darrow himself, though his mixture of clear thought and wit and soaring eloquence will probably never be equaled. It was learning the real history of labor and capital in the United States. The common practices of companies of 100 years ago are both hideous and hidden, and the heritage of that time continues.

The plays and essays of George Bernard Shaw. I won’t single out one in particular (though my favorites are Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, and Heartbreak House). Shaw’s goal ultimately was to teach people how to live, to look at the world as it is, not as you think it should be—and then do what you can to make things better. It was Shaw who said “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They may have different tastes.”

Finnegans Wake—James Joyce. My love of Shaw and Joyce, so completely different, come from a pair of courses taught at NYU by Prof. Dan H. Laurence. I’m sure I never would have read Joyce if not for Laurence (not sure about Shaw). But Joyce is one of my heroes—uncompromising, totally committed, lyrical and funny. I’ll probably never sit down and read the Wake from start to finish, but there are parts, especially the last pages, that I’ve read over and over. Joyce was an influence on me when I was writing the comic book Doom Patrol. In retrospect this might have been a mistake! On the other hand, I still think we did some strong stories in DP.

The Wasteland—T. S. Eliot. One of the greatest poems ever written, the best use of Tarot in poetry that I know of, and another major source for my Doom Patrol run. I re-read it every April, and always get something fresh from it.

The Place of the Lion—Charles Williams. Williams wrote mystical Christian thrillers, probably most famously the great Tarot novel The Greater Trumps (source of the expression “78 degrees of wisdom” to describe the cards). They were often clunky, even preachy. And yet— Lion tells of the Platonic Archetypes entering the everyday world through a spell cast at the same moment that a train wreck allows a group of circus animals to escape into the countryside. When I re-read it some years ago I was amazed to see how much the structure of my books stems from this single novel.

Awakening Osiris—Normandi Ellis. Ellis’s loose translation of the so-called “Egyptian Book of the Dead” is quite simply one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. The book shows us how the Goddess can be passionately real in our imaginations and our lives.

For the Time Being—Annie Dillard. I’ve read this small book four times and taught it twice. Dillard mingles science and Hasidism, the sadness of a world that abounds with birth defects and earthquakes along with the love of existence found in science and mysticism.

The Special Theory of Relativity—Albert Einstein. I’m cheating here. Not being a physicist or mathematician I have never read the actual theory, only prose treatments of it. Nevertheless, I have been fascinated by it since college, and even more in recent years. I think of it as the great Gnostic text of the 20th century, with its clear implication that only light is fully real, all that we think of as absolute, such as time and matter, are really contingent on, and relative to, light. I wrote about this, and the connection to the Fool in the Tarot, in my book The Forest of Souls.

A Big Jewish Book—Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz. This is one of a series of remarkable anthologies that Rothenberg co-edited with various people. They all mix modernist translations of tribal and ancient poetry with radical 20th century poetics. These books were so strong an influence on me that when I read part of Unquenchable Fire in my writers group years ago, my partner, who was also in the group, said “Aha, you’ve been reading Rothenberg again.”

SF 12—edited by Judith Merrill. Merrill did a series of “best of the year” science fiction anthologies. In the 12th year she championed the radical “New Wave” work that centered around Michael Moorcock’s magazine New Worlds, but branched out beyond sf to European surrealism. Reading this collection completely changed my writing, and in fact New Worlds published my first story and a couple of others.

Gates to the New Cityedited by Howard Schwartz. Schwartz is most famous for his re-tellings of Jewish myth and folk tales. In this early collection he brought together modern stories from Europe and America based on traditional Jewish themes. Not only did this book show me the power of re-telling ancient stories in contemporary settings, it introduced me to two legends that I’ve returned to again and again, in short stories, novels, and the last storyline of my Doom Patrol. These are the Talmudic tale of “The Four Rabbis Who Entered Paradise” and the strange sad story of Rabbi Joseph Della Reina, who performed a disastrous forbidden ritual to try to force the Messiah to come into the world. As Dr. Joseph Reina, “the child eater,” he appears yet again, as the villain in my story “Simon Wisdom,” in my collection The Tarot of Perfection.

So let’s see. With nine books in part one, and eleven in part two, I think I’ve reached the quota of ten. Did I mention I wasn’t a mathematician? And I didn’t even get to include the brilliant Tarot books of Eden Gray, Gail Fairfield, and especially the indispensable Mary K. Greer, The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, James Hillman’s school of “archetypal psychology,” The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas, the works of Yoel Hoffmann (for the last few years my favorite writer), Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism by Gershon Scholem, and all the vital influences I’m simply forgetting. To those of you who’ve got this far, thanks for reading!

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments (4)  

My Top Ten (Sort Of) Influential Books – Part One

Politically I would characterize myself as a far left progressive (I see Obama as a right winger). To make sure I don’t get too cozy in my point of view I look for right wing columns to read, even occasionally Redstate.com, though I tend to find it kind of strange and otherworldly (not in the good way). I prefer the sort of conservative the uber-rightwingers like to denounce as soft, or trying to suck up to the supposed “liberal media elite.” Two favorites are David Brooks of the New York Times and his younger colleague Ross Douthat. Douthat recently had a column in which he listed the ten books that most influenced him. In other words, not necessarily his favorites, and certainly not those he considers the “best.” Just the ones that had the biggest effect on him. I think this is a really fun idea. You get to write about books you care about (the book nerd’s favorite activity), and even, really write about yourself.  Mr. Douthat made sure to keep his list to exactly ten (with a few runners-up). Being far left I don’t worry too much about coloring in between the lines. If ten becomes twelve, or fifteen, why worry?

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street—Dr. Seuss. I posted the idea for this kind of list on Facebook and got wonderful responses. Many people figured that the books that most influenced them were the ones they read as kids. I had many favorites as a child, including the Babar stories, and the Dr. Doolittle series. But Dr. Seuss’s first book, about a little boy who walks down the street and imagines bigger and bigger wonders as he goes, kind of epitomizes my outlook. Why settle for reality, or what passes for it among the grown-ups?

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I loved all fairy tales as a child. Andrew Lang’s color series (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.), Hans Christian Andersen, whatever I could find. But I always knew that the Grimms’ stories were the real goods—unsentimental, scary, magical. Many of the stories I write are fairy tales, even if set in the modern day, and featuring adults (such as my novel, Godmother Night). The best translation of Grimm’s that I know of is The Juniper Tree by Lore Segal—direct, elegant, beautiful, and dark.

The Lord of the Rings—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Quite a few of the Facebook comments included this mighty work. I always feel compelled to tell people I discovered it all on my own, in the public library, years before it became a giant fad. There’s an entry further down on this site about Tolkien, so I won’t say too much here, except that I was fairly obsessed with it for some time (until the fad saved me—I didn’t want to be seen as one of those people), and that it showed me you don’t have to adapt existent worlds, you can create an entirely new one. Even though my novel Unquenchable Fire is nothing like TLOTR, I might never have written it without Tolkien’s influence.

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy—Mircea Eliade. This too I discovered on my own, when most people had never seen the word “shaman.” Eliade did not do any fieldwork, but he sorted through a vast amount of anthropological reports from all over the world, putting together a comprehensive vision of people for whom the “other world” is not theoretical or literary or a matter of faith, but an absolute reality. And a very strange one as well. I think it’s fair to say that the whole contemporary shamanic revival comes from this book—and so does a lot of my writing.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—Joseph Campbell. JC, as I sometimes think of him, was another of my personal discoveries. I went to a lecture of his around 1965, and went out and got his book right afterwards. That copy is so full of underlinings, and exclamation points, and my own comments, that I am simply too embarrassed to open it! I think everyone in college should have a book like that. Campbell’s views actually became much more complex after this early book, but I don’t think he ever matched the passion and beauty of Hero. It was a major influence on me stylistically, and at least two of the stories he re-tells, The Ruin of Kasch, and the transformation of Gwion Bach into the magical bard Taliesin, have been touchstones for me ever since.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony—Roberto Calasso. Calasso, whose first book was titled The Ruin of Kasch(!), delves more deeply into the Greek myths than anyone I’ve ever read. Stunning, and strange.

The Gate of Horn—Gertrude Rachel Levy. When I was immersing myself in contemporary Goddess writing, I kept seeing references to this book, published in 1948, and long out of print. I figured I should read it but did not really expect to learn much that was new, since after all, so much work had been done, so much important research, since the ’40s. I ended up taking over three hundred pages of notes. Seriously. Though Levy was a scholar, her history of religion from the Stone Age through the Classical world felt to me like fireworks going off on every page. At one point I had the fantasy that if I had to testify in court I would ask to be sworn in with my hand on The Gate of Horn.

The Rider Tarot—Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Not a book in the normal sense, though I often think of the Tarot as a book that you remake every time you shuffle it. I first saw the Rider deck when I was teaching college in 1970 and a colleague offered to read my cards if I gave her a ride home. It’s fair to say that it’s been a major influence in my life ever since. Forty years later I discover new things in it all the time.

The Man in the High Castle—Philip K. Dick. It’s always hard for me to choose my favorite work by Dick. The first thing I read of his was a short story, “Electric Ant,” about an executive who discovers he’s an android, commissioned by his company and imbued with false memories of a life history as a human being. I was amazed by the simple elegance, the intensity of the idea, the visionary quality of the executive’s attempt to find ultimate reality. Much of science fiction is the playing out of interesting notions. What makes Dick’s work so powerful is that it really mattered to him, the question of how we know that we are real was close to life and death. It’s fashionable in literary circles to celebrate Dick’s ideas while dismissing him as a writer. I couldn’t disagree more. The simplicity and spareness of his style are an expression of the bleakness of his vision. And yet, at the same time he can be extremely funny. There are passages in my own work that are direct homage to the style, and vision, and intensity of Philip K. Dick.

Okay, so that’s nine titles, which I figure takes me about halfway through my top ten. More to come!

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 5:43 am  Comments (5)  
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