Context Is King

Although this has been a recurring minor theme in many of my previous posts, I thought I would expand on it a bit. In a lengthy thread on the Cartomancy Forum titled “Is There Such a Thing as Bad Cards?” author Andy Boroveshengra (of Lenormand fame but equally accomplished in tarot and traditional astrology) made the following insightful observations:

“If there are bad events or occurrences in life there must be cards that mirror them. The cards reflect life. If they do not then however could they work.

Often the contentious issue in such discussions is the failure to recognise the difference between something being bad and unfortunate and something being inherently evil and wicked.

Astrology can illustrate the difference.

Neither Saturn nor Mars are inherently evil but both are malefic. Jupiter and Venus are not essentially good but are benefic. Malefics tend towards challenging and difficult circumstances and are not facilitating with ease on a functional level.

The bad cards are those that function on a malefic level. We cannot deny that such cards exist because they do; our clients and ourselves have experienced them. We just have to recognise that they themselves are not evil.”

The key point here is that it is the emerging circumstances that are unfortunate for the querent, not the cards that portend them; the cards are innocent of any such moral implications, they are merely the messengers that convey the truth of the situation, “for good or ill” as the famous Golden Dawn phrase goes. As is often the case, we are prone to “shoot the messenger” because it makes us think we have fully grasped the issue when all we have done is gloss over it. As Andy puts it, “bad events or occurrences in life” will happen regardless of whether we presuppose the cards in a reading to be good, bad or essentially neutral, so it serves no useful purpose to say that they can have no malefic import when all they are doing is mirroring the facts of the situation.  Shakespeare put it succinctly in The Merchant of Venice: “Truth will out.” Death can mean literal death (if only of something near-and-dear to the querent), the Devil is almost always deceitful to some extent, the Tower is markedly disruptive (which may not be a bad thing if the context supports it), the Hanged Man hinders progress, even if no instance of outright sacrifice is at hand).

Context is the operative principle in all of these considerations. If a forthcoming event is inherently harmless, Death may only imply a cloud passing over the sun; if, however, the planned occurrence is fraught with risk, Death can settle in and make itself at home. The indicated “ending” may be brief and of little consequence, or protracted and truly dire. Seeing Death in a reading about the prospects for a picnic outing in the country, one would be advised to bring an umbrella and be wary of  sudden thunderstorms; drawing it for an upcoming skydiving adventure, one might want to think twice about going. The significance of the question to the wellbeing of the subject has much to say about the relevance of cards that lean toward malefic or benefic results. The dimensions of a reading can lend themselves to either outcome, and meanings attributed to the cards must be precisely calibrated to the landscape. Even so, semanticist Alfred Korzybski once said “The map is not the territory” and ” The word is not the thing,” so at best a tarot card is an approximation of the reality represented by outward developments, not an expression of incontestable fact. As readers, our “understanding sometimes lacks ‘similarity of structure’ with what is actually happening.” Our challenge is to reconcile the two to the point that they overlap sufficiently to create confidence in the forecast.

If you are so inclined, Korzybki’s “General Semantics” is a fascinating and deep subject worthy of exploration. Korzybski had his detractors but I find his intellectual tenets compelling, with many relevant insights for how we view the mechanics of divination. Here is an interesting article that asserts “Reality exists outside our mind but we can construct models of this ‘territory’ based on what we glimpse through our senses. Scribbling on the map does not change the territory.” While I agree that binning the cards as categorically “good” or “bad” is an ultimately pointless exercise  that can stifle inflection, trying to reconstitute the fundamental nature of an historically malefic card as a situationally equivocal presence – as much as we might yearn to do so in the pursuit of New Age holism (where “all are one” and there can be no messy incongruities) – this sort of hair-splitting smacks of just such “scribbling.”

Maybe to avoid further tarnishing my already-suspect New Age cred (and there are people who pay attention to such inanities) I’ll just consider malefic cards to be “wolves in sheep’s clothing” until the context of the reading unmasks them. (Hmm, is that Shakespeare looking at me askance?)


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