A Feminist Tarot: The Empress

This is the first card in the deck which I felt compelled to rename.  Obviously, having all female figures makes having an empress and emperor make no sense.  But even beyond that, the meaning and interpretation of this card has never seemed to fit with the iconography for me.

The card speaks of fertility, which is not really the realm of an empress at all.  This is a really good example, I think, of how creating strictly gendered archetypes becomes quite clumsy and nonsensical.  An empress is simply the feminine form of emperor, which is about breadth of power and authority.  It is not the opposite of the emperor archetype.

Rather, if we are talking about fertility and creation, nurturing and incubation, even in the artistic or philosophical sense, it makes more sense to strip away the forced duality of emperor and empress and instead contrast the ordered rule and contrived authority of an Empress to the responsive connection to natural processes embodied by the concept of the Earth Mother.

And while the Earth-Mother-Masquerading-As-An-Empress is often associated with or depicted in pregnancy, I find the emphasis on woman as birth giver to be a somewhat unhealthy depiction of the concept.  Setting up childbirth and motherhood as the most important roles or powers available to women discounts all of the other ways in which women can and should express their fertility and creative abilities.  As creation in general is one of the most vital and essential activities in which humanity engages, the assumption that women should, can, or do predominantly create in the biological sense is another idea which serves primarily to limit our horizons and aspirations.

Welcome to the Real World

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been part of a handful of spiritual paths over the years.  I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family, became Catholic after graduating college, began studying Wicca and neopaganism a few years after that, then became something of an atheistic pagan.  I think religions and spiritual paths, much like jobs, are left out of dissatisfaction.  Very rarely are people lured away.

As a boss, I know that for the most part employees quit when they reach a point where the negatives of a job outweigh the positives.  If they’re out searching for new jobs, they’ve already decided to leave.  And very rarely do new jobs pop up that are so enticing that satisfies employees are willing to take a chance on a job change.

Similarly, I’ve known a lot of people who leave churches and religions because they reach a point where the questions and disagreements and discomfort outweigh the benefits of staying.  If they’re actively searching for a new church home, they’ve already decided to leave the previous one.  Very rarely do new spiritual paths lure committed and faithful people away from a spiritual path they find to be fulfilling and true.

I left the familiar Protestant faith I was raised in not because the Catholic Church was offering me a better deal, but because I realized that, without my family there to provide me special opportunities and incentive to participate, I had no personal desire to continue attending that kind of church.  It didn’t fit me.  That church was centered on the idea that it was our responsibility to center our lives entirely on god, to throw ourselves into church activities and seek to convert others.  Even then, I felt it was irresponsible and counterproductive to push a faith on others, if not dangerous.  That faith did not paint a realistic picture of what I thought it should mean to be a Christian.

I left Catholicism not because paganism looked so much better, but because I stopped feeling that I was getting anything out of my church experience.  I’d lost interest in going to Mass because I didn’t come away feeling like I’d really benefited from it.  I disagreed with too much of the Church’s doctrines and felt that it did not paint a realistic picture of how humans should be treated and respected.

I stopped studying traditional neopagan spirituality because I started feeling rather silly pretending to call upon deities and beings I didn’t thing really existed.  I didn’t feel that it painted a realistic picture of the workings of the universe and the relationship between humans and the planet.

And I think I’m pretty normal in that regard.  People leave religions when they start questioning too much.  They leave when their perception of reality stands at odds with the teachings and dogmas they’re being asked to embrace.  And this is important right now because there are so many people leaving organized religion these days.  Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s very clearly a sign that religious teachings as they stand are not proving to be accurate when measured against the experience of current reality.

If religion fails to speak to reality, what good is it?

A Feminist Tarot: The High Priestess

In the story I was told to weave together the Major Arcana, this card is the point where the Fool, having been shown all manner of potential by the Magician, sees the High Priestess and asks for advice.  The High Priestess doesn’t give answers, however, as much as she gives directions for finding inner illumination.

If there is a contrast in opposites to be seen in the pairing of the two cards, I think it’s more valuable and enlightening to depict the difference as objective versus subjective guidance.  The Magician takes what is and shows what could be, and doesn’t delve too far into questions of should or should not.  The High Priestess tells the seeker to stop looking at all the possibilities until they’ve thought about their motives and motivations.  The Magician talks about hows and whens, the High Priestess deals with whys and what ifs.

While you might expect that, in a feminist tarot, the male and female roles would be reversed, I think it’s counterproductive to automatically reject anything which has been traditionally associated with the feminine.  That said, it’s certainly time to reject the idea that there is anything inherently special about the kind of insight or wisdom held by women.  There is nothing harmful in depicting women in the role of mystic or spiritual guide, but there’s nothing beneficial in depicting mysticism and spiritual guidance as something naturally or predominantly mastered by women.

The High Priestess card simply points us towards intuition and inner reflection, and potentially towards a person who can guide and instruct that process.  But as much as we should take care not to reflexively choose a man to fill the role of Magician when and if we need a mentor or motivator, so should we not assume that all women who claim great intuition and vision are naturally gifted and suitable guides.  The idea that women, by nature, possess certain strengths or abilities is benevolent sexism at work.  It also leads us to devalue women who fill the role of Magician because, in doing so, they are not fully embracing their “natural” role as High Priestess.

If there is a caution I would place on either card, it’s that we should always question our willingness to trust expected stereotypes.  Not only are we too often unaware that we operate with such biases, even when we are aware we too often fail to recognize the extent to which we act on them.


In Someone Else’s Footsteps

All through my long spiritual life journey, I can’t say I’ve ever really had a guide, teacher, mentor, or instructor.  Even when such relationships are purposefully arranged (for instance, when I became Catholic I had a sponsor who was supposed to guide me through the process), I don’t tend to use that person as intended.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met anyone who seemed to be further along a specific spiritual path along which I desired to tread.  Perhaps it’s because I’m too arrogant to accept that someone else can teach me more than I can find through my own research.

In any case, I know many of my friends in pagan circles have turned to mentors and teachers to guide them through initiatory paths.  It’s a spiritual process I’m intrigued by. What would I look for in a spiritual guide or instructor if I were to seek one?  And what would have to happen to make me want to seek one?

If spirituality is a journey, organized religion is something like being part of a tour group. You don’t have to worry about getting lost, the path is established and secured, and all you really have to do is get on and off the bus when told and stay with your group.  What you don’t see, though, is all the really enriching off-the-beaten-path stuff.  It’s safe, but it’s also pre-packaged, and you’re thrust together with people you may or may not wish to travel with.

In the same analogy, studying under a mentor or spiritual teacher is like hiring a guide to show you around a foreign place.  It’s not something most of us would do as travelers unless we anticipated having difficulty communicating, navigating, or avoiding danger.  A guide can take you nearly anywhere, if they’re willing to do so, and their job is to facilitate your progress more than direct it.

And that, I think, is the crux of why I’ve never felt the need for a mentor or guide in my spiritual life.  I’m confident in my own ability to pick a direction and navigate the path without assistance, and, in fact, prefer to do so.  I don’t want to be led along a well-traveled path, stepping in the footsteps of those who have gone before.  It’s not the kind of traveling my spiritual self prefers.

Do you have someone you consider a guide or a mentor on your spiritual journey?  How did you find them and what made you choose them?

Where do you expect them to take you?

A Feminist Tarot: The Magician

Ask any woman with a high level of expertise in her field, and she will have heaps of stories about having to justify or defend her knowledge and ability to those who have been conditioned to expect their experts and mentors to be male.  And, unfortunately, those reactions are not only to be seen from the males around us.  Women are just as likely to harbor the same ingrained prejudices whether they realize it or not.

The Magician in the Tarot is a charismatic expert who inspires us and motivates us. There’s an element of awe there, the idea that this card represents someone who we aspire to be, not just someone we desire to learn from.

And how many of us, if we were to be told to seek out such a person, would picture our target as a man?

This card, of course, is often set against the next one as a contrasting pair: the hard knowledge and willful creative acts of the Magician against the nebulous wisdom and gentle guidance of the High Priestess.  And it is in such contrasts that I see much of the ingrained sexism of the Tarot.  In illustrating such contrasting concepts through gendered iconography, we illustrate a world with gender-based limits.  And the more we reinforce that idea in art and media, the more we reinforce that expectation.

Even as this card has a mystical overtone to it — this is a magician, not a physician — it points towards practical and actionable kinds of expertise rather than philosophical and experiential wisdom.  And while I don’t argue that those are two different types of knowledge there is no good reason to depict them as gendered.

Clearly, the fight for equality would be helped immensely if we purposefully sought out women as guides and mentors and motivators.

A Higher Purpose

The final thing on the list of characteristics of religion is the idea of sacredness.  In most religions, some things are sacred and some profane.  There is a division between things which are of or related to the faith, the deity or deities of the religion, and those things which are of the mundane world.

This is where it’s a little bit difficult to draw a parallel between activism and traditional religion.  Activism doesn’t involve worship, per se, only a communal agreement and commitment to particular action.  There’s an end goal, a unifying purpose, but no deity to follow or please.

On the other hand, there is an obvious sense in these times that there are activities which are productive, progressive, involved, and those which amount to avoidance and escape.  There are ways of living which contribute to progress and the elevation of humanity, and those which contribute to maintaining the oppression of the status quo.  There’s even a clear division between action and those things which we are supposed to do when we feel worn out and stressed by the weight of reality.

I think, perhaps, the clearest parallel to the sacred/profane dichotomy in religion is the duality between things which serve a greater purpose and things which serve only ourselves.  That is not to say that to partake in self-focused activities or self-indulgent things is bad any more than religion condemns paying bills or watching television.  But just as religion absolutely condemns (in most cases) a focused dedication to the mundane world which results in an abandonment or rejection of faith, activism calls for us to speak out very loudly against a focused dedication to one’s own existence in order to ignore the larger problems faced by humanity.

A Feminist Tarot: The Fool

I think sometimes we’re addicted to new beginnings.  We romanticize them, especially when we imagine the hero of the story to be the emancipated woman breaking free to follow a passion.  It’s an inspirational archetype, especially when we feel particularly aware of all the cultural restrictions under which we all live.

At first glance, there would seem to be something inherently feminist in the idea of the Fool, carrying all she needs as she takes the first steps on a new journey.

But what of the journey after that?

I’ve started over many a time in my life, and I’ve watched friends and family do the same more times than I can count.  And I’ve also watched myself and everyone else repeat the same mistakes and follow our hearts right back to the same situations we thought we were walking away from.  Clearly, too many of us don’t know the difference between freedom and avoidance.

I also suspect that too many of us have never learned a better way of dealing with circumstances less than ideal.  The heroine escapes and the princess is freed from her prison, but the fairy tales don’t tell us enough tales of women who actually work to change anything.  Yes, sometimes removing ourselves to a better situation is the best solution to our struggles, but I think too often we choose the escape because we don’t know how to approach the alternative.

The thing about the Fool card is that it doesn’t tell us anything about the journey besides the fact that one has taken the first step.  In fact, many have pointed out that the traditional iconography carries a bit of a warning: the sky-gazing fool may be about to walk off a cliff.  But I think what’s more important than realizing that we need to watch where we’re going is that we need to think about why we’re starting over.   Is this an escape to a possibly nonexistent paradise?  Or is this an expedition to a trove of useful treasure?  Is this a one way trip, or a journey we mean to return from with better tools and better skills and a vision for building the future?