Tarot, Literally

Since the origin of human communication, people have shared stories. Even before written language, humans utilized symbols, pictograms, and other illustrative means, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, to communicate ideas. Tarot is one such storytelling vehicle as the cards have provided an array of archetypes and other rich imagery that have helped creative folk imagine narratives and outline themes since making their first appearance in the late-fourteenth century.



To that effect, in 1909 Pamela Colman Smith designed the most popular version of the tarot to date. Often referred to as the Ryder Waite-Smith or Smith-Waite deck, Smith’s 78-piece collection of illustrations and allegory continue to provide a tremendous source of inspiration for artists and writers alike.


The act of “reading” the tarot is an act of storytelling in and of itself. In fact, many writers have consulted the cards, through seeking professional readings, reading the cards for themselves, or using the images in order to figure out how to advance a story or begin a new one.


In my blog post titled The Scars We Choose (1), I shared my own history of how using the tarot helped to birth a book duology of the same title. While my venture with the cards began with the uncovering of a single fictional character, many writers before me have explored the tarot for inspiring their own stories.



Historical examples date as far back as William Shakespeare, whose fool characters were likely informed by the Fool card, the first card of the Major Arcana, which had been circulating for at least two centuries prior amongst the lineage of European aristocrats and alchemists who heavily supported his work (2). Wildly regarded as one of his most famous fools, King Lear’s trusted advocate takes on many qualities of the tarot’s Fool: honesty, loyalty, wittiness, and irony.


Furthermore, when writing his final novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), John Steinbeck was influenced by the work of T. S. Eliot and other writers whose work the tarot had inspired (3). Additionally, Steinbeck’s novel harkens back to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1973), which outlines the Hero’s Journey, the adventure model that directly informed Arthur Edward Waite’s “Fool’s journey” a la the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana.


Tarot cards are also mentioned in The Magus (1965), by John Fowles and in his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1979), Italo Calvino’s characters use them for storytelling purposes along their travels.


Stephen King’s works such as Danse Macabre (1981) and The Gunslinger (1982), the first of eight novels in The Dark Tower series, suggest the horror author was familiar with and inspired by the tarot. In the former, King identifies what he refers to as “the three tarot cards of horror" (4). These archetypes, which he asserts are the basis for all monsters, are the Werewolf, the Vampire, and the Thing. As such, the Werewolf includes shapeshifters, the Vampire represents creatures possessing bloodlust, to include zombies and other blood-thirsty parasites, and the Thing symbolizes a destructive, alien monster, the origins of which may or may not be of this Earth.


Although it’s not confirmed whether Virginia Woolf used the tarot and/or was inspired by the cards when penning her many novels and themes, she was directly connected to a web of artists and writers who were. To start, Woolf was a fan of W. B. Yeats, having reviewed his poetry collection, The Tower (1927), which was deeply steeped in tarot symbolism. Additionally, she shared a twenty-year friendship with T. S. Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land was published by her publishing company, Hogarth Press, in 1922 (5). Moreover, Yeats, Eliot, and Woolf’s friend, actress Ellen Terry were all members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that devoted its time to studying and practicing themes related to the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. Coincidentally, Ellen Terry was also a dear friend to Pamela Colman Smith (even bestowing upon her the nickname of “Pixie”), as well as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (whom Pixie affectionately referred to as “Bramy”), all Golden Dawn members (6).


Clockwise from left: Ellen Terry, Christabel Marshall, Lindsay Jardine, and Pamela Colman Smith at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage 1902. Anne Hathaway was William Shakespeare's wife... not the actress. Photo credit: Stuart Kaplan of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.


The tarot’s history is as nuanced and esoteric as the history of the aforementioned writers and artists; however, it’s no secret that the cards can be an incredibly inspiring tool for both enhancing creativity and discerning entire literary plotlines. In future posts, I will share with you detailed specifics around how I have used the tarot for plotting my novels as well as sharpening my keen writer’s intuition.


For more on the intersection of creativity and intuition, visit my blog post of the same title at my website: www.haintbluecreative.com.



Bibliography


(1) Hughes, A. (2022, April 27). The Scars We Choose. @haintbluecreative. https://www.haintbluecreative.com/post/the-scars-we-choose


(2) Pierce, C. A. (2016, November 8). “An O without a figure”: The Fool and the Concept of Zero in King Lear. Crossroadstarot. https://crossroadstarot.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/an-o-without-a-figure-the-fool-and-the-concept-of-zero-in-king-lear/#more-291


(3) Kasparek, C. A. (1984). Ethan’s Quest Within : A Mythic Interpretation of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. http://liblink.bsu.edu/catkey/225291


(4) Auger, E. E. (2018). Tarot and T.S. Eliot in Stephen King’s Dark Tower Novels [Article]. SWOSU Digital Commons. https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol36/iss2/22/


(5) Pierce, C. A. (2015, August 8). Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Tarot Imagery in “The Searchlight.” Crossroadstarot. https://crossroadstarot.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/dont-be-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-tarot-imagery-in-the-searchlight/


(6) Kaplan, S. R. (2018). Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story. U.S. Games Systems Inc.




On Writer Wednesday, the spotlight shines on another talented author! Stay tuned for my interview with Jessica Cantwell.




In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of upmarket, literary, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.


Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. Although she earned a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, she has yet to figure out her family, much less herself.


When she’s not writing, Mandy loves going to the movies, theater, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, margarita-making, and binge-watching The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to promote wellness and enhance creativity. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four boys, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at haintbluecreative.com and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.




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