The Female in Tarot
'As they passed the rows of houses they saw through the open doors that men were sweeping and dusting and washing dishes, while the women sat around in groups, gossiping and laughing. 'What has happened?' the Scarecrow asked a sad-looking man with a bushy beard, who wore an apron and was wheeling a baby carriage along the sidewalk. 'Why, we've had a revolution, your Majesty -- as you ought to know very well,' replied the man; 'and since you went away the women have been running things to suit themselves. I'm glad you have decided to come back and restore order, for doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.' 'Hm!' said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. 'If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?' 'I really do not know,' replied the man, with a deep sigh. 'Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron.'
― L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz
You have got to love synchronicity.
It is International Women’s day on the 8th March so I had a muse about the women in Tarot. At the same time as I was scribbling something down there was a Facebook thread with a well-respected Tarotist about gender within the Court cards. I hope I am not misinterpreting the conversation but the person in question is trying to solve the problem of not assigning the Courts with roles or embodiment, in other words making them gender neutral. Oh, thought I, maybe I can put some thoughts together about this subject. I think it will be inconclusive in the end and open to standpoint theory.
Is making the Tarot cards gender neutral possible?
There are several decks that avoid obvious gender depictions such as The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans which uses images from nature. Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe deck also shares nature and shamanic symbology to portray archetypes.
The question could be does the image of a human necessarily define an archetype or are we dealing with something more stereotypical?
Archetypes could be described as keys to the unseen. Primordial inherited psychic structures. The latent reality of things. Plato describes them as thoughts in the mind of God. Ibn Arabi reminds us that in the Qudsi Hadith it is said, ’I am a hidden treasure, I desired to be known, so I created the universe.’
I describe archetypes as every human experience known to mankind or is it womankind...and therein is the rub…!?
Certain decks reflect the dynamic of the cards through female representation very well. Daughters of the Moon was originally the Matriarchal Tarot and began life in 1976. The idea for this deck came from the perception that Tarot decks did not show the growing consciousness of women, race, class and woman-identified spirituality. A term for this particular deck was a Feminary. It describes the archives of women lore and knowledge.
Mother Peace, another deck which was produced at about the same time also harnessed the mythology of women through the Goddess and nature. Incidentally, both these decks are circular. This is a nice touch as it eliminates the positive/negative viewpoint of an image. Mary J Shirfey in her book, The Nature of Female Sexuality, offers the theory that the female precedes the male as a physical form. Men were consorts and companions to the female energy.
Gail Fairfield, in her book Choice Centred Tarot, describes Tarot as a way to discover self and transformation through emotional resonance and mental interest. She opines that since no conceptual interpretations come along with Tarot’s ancient symbolic structures we have to trust our personal inner knowing and intuition to interpret the meaning.
I see the position of gender in the cards more as an explanation of a dynamic, an idea that is drawn from the collective understanding that allows insight and brevity.
It is a good question that has been asked, what if the cards were stripped of their bodily representation, how would we then describe it? I think that even when we use nature as imagery we still sort out the pictures into what is male or female, which plants and which grows.
In the RWS deck there is a prominent depiction of the phallus. Lacan has a theory that the Mother and the Father both desire the phallus. I see this as drive, libido. After maturation in the aspect of the feminine, the essence then has to evolve into movement and expansion.
Having said all that there are some wonderful female characters in the Tarot.
If I was to go to my favourite it would be the Queen of Swords. She is the survivor, the one who buckles up for the bumpy ride, assured in her intelligence and aware of her wits she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. However, if you have a good relationship with her she will not let you down. Even though she requires reassurance from time to time you can be sure her sharp uptake will be an asset to the team.
Another favourite might be Justice.
I am deliberately not assigning her a deity for the point of this newsletter…but she is a great gal. Fair and balanced, calm and present. She is neither warm nor cold but more a case of you made your bed, now you lie in it.
Even in the Hermit, the ascetic we can see the feminine, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard Von bingen, Sufi saint Rubiya. Then of course we must consider the World, the power of the androgyne. In this day and age of massive gender shifts and as we contemporise Tarot, it might be worth reflecting on the nature of perceiving the esoteric through gender and just what that might meant to you.
To celebrate International Women’s day, go through your deck, gather your thoughts about the women in the deck.
What are your key words for them? What do they do?
If you were to assign them another persona or image what would it be?
If you were to take away their human embodiment how would you describe them?