31DoM: Use Tarot Cards

Today’s assignment in the 31 Days of Magic project from the Strategic Sorcery community around Jason Miller is to “Use Tarot/playing cards” in some sort of working.

Yeah.  I can do that.  But as I remarked to Stacey a day or two ago, part of my goal in this series is to get magicians to think differently about magic, and to get teachers to think differently about creativity, and to get us all thinking differently about Making. And so it is that I’m revealing Something Really Important about the magical tradition.

31 DoM: use a card
I. Begin with a pencil drawing…

You see, I don’t think that the teachings in the grimoires about the appearances of angels and demons, or the images of the Planets that one finds in Picatrix, or the images associated with the Mansions of the Moon and the Decans of the Zodiac, are there accidentally.  I think they’re present in these texts not just as visualization tools for calling up spirits.

I think they’re there as a curriculum in drawing and visual representation.  Consider the following description, taken from the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy allegedly but probably not by H.C. Agrippa:

The Spirits of Jupiter appear with a sanguine and choleric body; they are of middle stature; their motion is “horrible and fearful,” but they are mild of countenance and gentle in speech. They are of iron colour, which ought to have connected them with Mars; their motion is that of flashing lightnings, and withal thunderous; their sign is the apparition of men about the circle who seem to be devoured by lions. Their particular forms are a king with drawn sword riding on a lion; 2 a mitred personage in a long vestment; a maid crowned with laurel and adorned by flowers; a bull; a stag; a peacock; an azure garment; a sword; a box-tree.

This is a description, or more accurately a set of descriptions, that can be followed:  red and yellow, middle height, weirdly-angled body parts, human looking faces.  Reddish skin, lions, a man with a sword riding on a lion, a bishop, a woman with a laurel crown and flowers, a bull, a male deer with a suite of antlers, a peacock, a sword, a box-tree or topiary.  In other words, says the author of the Fourth Book, “don’t just look for these spirits… try drawing them, too.”

31 DoM: use a card
II. Ink the line art, then the image colors

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe there’s no intention on the part of these late Medieval and early Renaissance artists to provide their students with a drawing curriculum.

But it feels right.  Consider the engravings of the 1600s and 1700s associated with alchemy.  The artists and artisans who produced those elaborate illustrations for the Rosicrucian pamphlets knew how to draw — wheeled fortresses and flying beakers, angels and angles and geometric figures of stunning complexity.  The creators of the illustrations were working within a tradition, and no one among them really appeared to fear Church arrest and persecution — they were the makers of the Church’s books and altarpieces, at first.  The Church could not have done without their illustrative powers.  And those powers of illustration, of illumination, of communication-in-pictures, had been passed down in some form since well before the Fall of Rome.

31 DoM: use a card
III. Stop when you run out of color…

So maybe the Tarot isn’t just a divination system. Maybe it’s the end product of a complex course in drawing, designed to teach its users how to communicate in pictures.  It’s a simple way to learn how to paint miniatures for the medieval book trade.  It’s a simple way to learn to handle the tools of the medieval artist: the pen, the brush, the paint pots.  It’s a simple way to work with line are and a limited palette of colors.


More than that, though, whenever I create a card like this, I discover what a powerful artist Pamela Colman Smith really was. The card I did tonight, the Eight of Cups, is usually understood to be the acceptance of the spiritual against the love of the material.  But what I see is that the cups are stacked on the wrong side of a dive filled with water: our side.  The figure is renouncing the cups, perhaps, and seeking the mountains in the distance — but then, he or she was facing a long-way-around journey to come to the cups in the first place.  We the viewers have the cups, not the renunciate.

Is that significant? Maybe.  But I wouldn’t have noticed it, one way or the other, without drawing ehe card first.  And maybe that’s it — that it’s not just about drawing the card from the deck, but drawing-in-the-sense-of-duplicating the card that is equally important.  You don’t know what you’re looking at if you haven’t studied it, and if you draw it yourself, then you’ve studied it far more effectively than if you just looked at it.

The Visual Curriculum

Every card has an entire curriculum within it:  how to draw figures, for example.  How to duplicate proportions.  How to color.  How to portray light, and show angles.  How to express distance through size and through height above the baseline of the card.  How to demonstrate depth.  How to curve and straighten lines so that vertical and horizontal surfaces are seen. How to compress three dimensions of information into two.

How to learn how to draw.

Then as now, in Smith’s time as in Agrippa’s time as in the days of Hermes Trismegistus, drawing was hard.  Distance, proportion, color, angle of shadow, angle of light source, shade, hue, line — none of these things come naturally to anyone.  They have to be practiced just like writing or arithmetic. There was no place for drawing in the traditional medieval curriculum.  It is literally hidden in plain sight — in the lavish illustrations that adorn illuminated manuscripts, right alongside the texts describing the seven liberal arts.


31 DoM: use a card
IV. Compare your work with prior efforts

Maybe, more importantly, drawing and the copying of drawings is a way to show students the practice effect at work. Here is the first copy of a Tarot card I ever did for myself. It’s a terrible rendition of the Eight of Pentacles. You can see that I’m starting to experiment with the idea of depth, with the idea of angles.   But if you want to get better, you have to do the work more frequently.

Because that’s part of this story too.  When I went to darken the green of the hills, and to paint in the boots and cloak of my human figure — I found that my ink pens had dried up.  I’ve been so busy with other things, like carpentry and string theory and design process, that I let this project to produce my own Tarot deck fall by the wayside for a while, and my kit was partially dried up.  Although I did a number of cards, including the Chariot, and used them to dispense some magical advice once upon a time… I’ve fallen out of practice.  I’m mostly picking up where I left off — but I’ve let some of my tools reach their expiration dates.

And it’s a useful reminder that all things face Saturn — death and endings — sooner or later.  Is drawing a part of the magical curriculum for you? If so, it’s time to get started.


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  1. Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago (or was that with Freeman? I’m so sorry, I’m slipping) the Mysteries are about getting inside the story, myth, or what have you. What better way to experience the Mysteries of Tarot than to become the artist? Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!

    • You’re allowed to slip. You’ve had a hard couple of weeks. I think it was with Freeman, who’s awesome; but it’s similar to conversations we’ve had before.

      If you want my phone number, if I can be of help to you, let me know.

    • You don’t know how much your kindness means to me, how touching your offer really is. Thank you sir — but I’m in a good place, and moving forward. Blessings to you!

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