Thursday, March 12, 2009

In his enchanting and profound work Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde explores the emergence and significance of the trickster archetype in religion and art, and the ways in which Trickster helps to create and sustain civilization. As I reflect on Trickster and his meaning and relevance for 21st century society, I can't help but think about the trickster elements that appear in the Tarot.

Perhaps the purest expression of the Trickster is the Fool, also known in earlier decks as Il Matto, the Madman. The Fool is numbered zero, because he exists completely outside the social hierarchy of medieval society, on the margins or periphery of that culture. Trickster is found on the threshold, at the boundary, the space where one place turns into another. His domain is the open road, which is where Trickster is often found. In some traditions, Trickster rules the crossroads. The Fool doesn’t belong to a particular place; he’s always on the move, for he's both a traveler and a wanderer, two activities long associated with the Trickster.

The Magician also has Trickster elements. In some earlier Tarot decks he was known as Le Bateleur, or Il Bagatto. Unlike the fool he has an occupation, but he’s disreputable. His number is One, so while he does have a place in society, he's at the bottom rung. Le Bateleur was often regarded as something of a con artist, a mountebank or sleight of hand artist who was amusing but couldn’t be trusted. As someone who performs magic tricks, he is literally a tricky fellow.

Unlike the Fool, he is part of the village, but his domain is the public square, that space which belongs to everyone and no one. In some versions, the Magician is shown with dice, iconic objects in their own right which symbolize chance and luck, along with cups and balls, the original ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ disappearing act. The suggestion of sneakiness and theft in this image are part and parcel of the Trickster.

While most people might be annoyed to see the Fool wandering about their village (or would simply ignore him), the Magician would be welcome, as long as he didn’t overstay his welcome. Whereas the Fool is a character who may inspire pity or revulsion (sometimes at the same time), the Magician provokes a different set of mixed feelings – admiration for his skill, coupled with wariness at his cleverness. He is entertaining, but his magic may also engender suspicion – what exactly does he have up his sleeve, and what else can he make vanish?

Being a method of divination, the Tarot is permeated by a kind of trickster energy. The Tarotist begins a reading by shuffling the deck, and a seemingly random group of cards appears, by chance, to answer the querent’s question. The cards speak a language all their own, one which the Tarot reader must interpret or translate for the reading to be helpful. Hermes could be said to rule over the Tarot, since the cards mediate between the querent and her higher self, providing images that taken together communicate a message or story that help illuminate or resolve a dilemma. The cards carry messages from someplace else, which are brought down to earth for the benefit of human beings.
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I believe it is this mercurial element at the heart of Tarot that makes it such an engaging method for introspection, learning, and growth. In that liminal space created by a reading, one doesn't know exactly what will happen until the cards are laid upon the table. Then the images must be examined and read in order for any kind of insight to emerge. The possible combinations that can arise, coupled with the multiplicity of the images' meanings, make Tarot a dynamic and profound approach for addressing the problems and challenges inherent in living.
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Of course, Tarot has its shadow side as well. Some regard Tarot as a con, and indeed some misuse the Tarot purely to exploit others and profit from their confusion or pain. While legitimate Tarotists may wring their hands over this, and wonder what can be done, we may have to accept that while the charlatan's tactics are unethical (and in some cases even illegal), there may never be a way to completely escape this aspect of Tarot, even as we try to promote high standards for Tarot readings. The Trickster can charm and confound at the same time, and while his role in society is essential he can never be completely trusted. The Trickster requires us to be open, yet alert; we have to be receptive to his message, yet keep our wits about us all the same. It is the tension that exists between the polarities of scholarship and quackery, between respectability and shadiness, and between wisdom and folly, that keeps Tarot vibrant.


Eccentric Scholar said...

What an excellent analysis! I especially love your closing line: "It is the tension that exists between the polarities of scholarship and quackery, between respectability and shadiness, and between wisdom and folly, that keeps Tarot vibrant."

Tamara said...