Update: I will be doing all my Tarot blogging at The American Renaissance Tarot site from now on. Come check us out!
Note: all the images that appear in this post (other than the Tarot photos) are by the early 20th-century French illustrator Edmund Dulac. They are all illustrations of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, and were sourced from the site Encore Editions.
I have been in a period of deep transition following the birth of my son. Obviously, children transform your life, but I have had the additional challenge this past year of integrating a repressed sexual trauma that surfaced with the changes to my body during pregnancy. Anyone who has taken on the Great Work of wrestling with the monsters in his or her psychic closet knows that the path toward resolving buried trauma is anything but linear and straightforward. We carefully construct rigid, adult personalities around our deepest pain, the clever scaffolding of the ego which perpetuates its own survival. But when these mental structures have outlived their usefulness, we start to hear the rumblings of our authentic selves through the cracks in the personality’s fragile edifice.
Sometimes these subconscious cries for acknowledgement are so loud that they manifest as synchronistic experiences. Last year, the same day that I called up a physical memory of the sexual abuse in therapy, my car had to be towed to the shop due to a cracked CV boot. I listened, bewildered, as the mechanic explained that the damage wasn’t covered by warranty because there was a dead animal wrapped around my axel. A dead animal? I talked to my husband, and neither of us could recall any bumps to the car that might have been the sound of a collision with a small animal. The symbolic significance of this event was clear to me almost immediately. The innocent being that was sucked under the wheels of my car had put a stop to my forward momentum; just so, a mangled corpse within my emotional body, one whose existence I had never even imagined, was tying up my ability to steer my life.
Throughout this strange journey of trying to make sense of past traumas that have both the unreality and hyper-reality of dreams, I have been helped the most by paying attention to synchronistic experiences, ancestor communications, my dreams, and psychic technology like the Tarot. Adhering to a strict schedule of weekly counseling in conventional psychotherapy – poking the wound every Tuesday – not only did not help me, but also provoked a crisis that it seemed like only psych meds could solve. I stopped taking the pills after a few weeks, determined in my knowledge that the worst had obviously already occurred and that there was just no reason the “healing” process should be an exercise in suffering.
Some of you know that I have written a book about the Tarot which interprets the archetypes of the cards through iconic American literature. I have also been testing out Tarot spreads inspired by writers and their tales. This “Angels and Demons” spread evolved out of my academic knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe and his fascination with both sub-human and super-human states of being. Little in Poe’s literary corpus features the merely human. Rather, Poe’s characters tend toward the extremes of abnormal psychology and behave like human devils, or alternately resemble godlike entities endowed with supernatural gifts. Poe’s genius is that he understood that both options are available to all humans at any time. We all have a Shadow, and we all have a Higher Self, or Guiding Spirit.
Trauma can make us feel that we are damned to live in shadow, eaten alive by our fears and the false perceptions that pain has made tangible. It can be more comfortable to live on the surface, because slaying those inner demons calls for nothing less than our best and highest – in other words, total transformation. When I started working with the “Angels and Demons” spread, alternately titled “Poe’s Coffin,” I had no idea how much I would feel the truth of the idea that the demon we fear the most is actually our highest angel. To badly paraphrase Carl Jung, lots of scary stuff lurks within the subconscious mind, but you have to trek in there in order to find the treasure! The “Angels and Demons” Tarot spread is designed to help you access deep fears and traumas. It does not “cure” them, but rather facilitates the process of making unconscious material more conscious.
Begin by entering a quiet state of mind, and strive to be open to the material that your guides bring out through the medium of Tarot. Handle and shuffle the cards, then split the deck. Pull seven cards from the bottom pile. Lay all the cards face-down and then turn them over in sequential order. Cards 1-3 should be arrayed like three steps leading down into a dark cavern, and you should imagine them as such. Each successive step down represents a lower layer of consciousness. Card 1 represents the outward behaviors you exhibit because of the trauma, something of which you are conscious. Card 2 represents a situation related to the trauma that causes you pain, or that you avoid thinking about. Card 3 represents a facet of your life of which you are barely conscious, something that might take a great deal of unflinching honesty to see in yourself. Lay Card 4 down horizontally (all the other cards in the spread will be vertical). The horizontal position of Card 4 visually represents a part of yourself that has died or been distorted by trauma.
You will get the most out of this Tarot spread by stopping to meditate on the imagery of each Tarot card as you turn it over. Reflect on how trauma creates not only the neurotic behaviors you can see in Card 1, but deeper and more far-reaching challenges that appear to you in Cards 2 and 3. Imagine that you are slowly descending into an underground crypt where a frightful terror awaits you, much as if you were the protagonist in one of Poe’s horror tales. Build up the tension of dread, and then screw up your courage and turn over Card 4.
The tension that you have built up by slowly creeping down into your subconscious mind, deeper and deeper, will allow you to have an emotional reaction to Card 4. The more you surrender to the process of allowing your subconscious mind to speak to you, the more effortless your understanding of Card 4 will be. As always, don’t be afraid to apply your personal associations to each Tarot card. The "Angels and Demons" spread is designed for personal use, and so no one will be peering over your shoulder to see if you are doing it wrong! Just allow the images to speak to you, and your subconscious mind will do the rest. Card 4 could represent an event or person that traumatized you, or it could manifest as a part of yourself that has been hiding since experiencing the trauma. Card 4 encompasses all the possibilities of what might be locked up inside a coffin within your mind.
After turning over Card 4, make it vertical. Make your unconscious material conscious. Face your demon; resuscitate him.
Next you will turn over Card 5, which is placed as a step leading up into the superconscious mind. Cards 1 and 5 represent the threshold between your neurotic behavior and the positive choices you make for yourself that assist you in overcoming the trauma. Card 5 represents a beneficial behavior that you already engage in during those moments when you are in touch with your higher self. Cards 6 and 7 show the path of future growth, degrees of healing and fulfillment you will obtain if you continue on the path of consciousness. As with the steps leading down, imagine every step up as an arduous feat which demands great bravery. Take your time. Imagine what your life would be like if you embraced the qualities you see represented in Card 6 and, lastly, Card 7. Card 7 gives you a tangible image of what being released from this trauma looks like to you. Know that the path upward to transformation is just as available to you as the path downward into Hell.
Card 7 is not the last card in the spread, though you trick your conscious mind into thinking it is by making it the last number in a sequence. Now you will raise the dead. You will draw Card 4 up from the depths and lay it above Card 7 as the next step. You acknowledge the trauma as your teacher, and thank it as the unique lesson your Soul devised for you in this lifetime as a strategy for calling out your best and highest faculties. This is no easy task. You might feel bewildered and resentful, yet your subconscious mind is eager to re-claim this aspect of your lost power and re-integrate it. Ask yourself what gifts the trauma has given you, and why it was necessary for you to receive them. Your Soul knows the answers to these questions.
I provide a sample reading below, using cards I pulled around the issue of trauma in my own life. The deck is my favorite Steampunk Tarot by Llewellyn.
Card 1: The Emperor. I understood why the Emperor appeared at the threshold of my subconscious mind. Though he has many gifts to offer, he is also a symbol of repression, of slogging through daily life without joy or reward, only work. In my personal mythology, he is the rigid doorkeeper of all the volatile subconscious material that I have desperately tried to control. His presence has been necessary to keep my life functional, but not joyous.
Card 2: Death. Just beneath my conscious awareness, I encountered the Death card. To me this symbolized all the potentials that were cut off in childhood by trauma, lost and fragmented soul-pieces that I must now call home.
Card 3: The Four of Cups. In the basement of my subconscious mind, I met the self-absorbed figure that appears on the Four of Cups. In my literary Tarot deck, the symbolism of this card is epitomized by a character in a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, one who practices the Puritans' morbid practice of holding consciousness of personal sin ever before one’s eyes. Thus the Four of Cups has a particularly negative association for me, and is a fitting expression of the shame and self-hatred that have created so many roadblocks for me over my life.
Card 4: The Six of Wands. This card carries overwhelmingly positive associations. Its basic meaning is a “victory.” Intuitively I could see that the trauma has prevented me from identifying with my strengths and experiencing victories.
Card 5: Temperance. As the first step into my upper world or higher mind, I was grateful for the presence of Temperance. It’s true that when I strive to transform my consciousness by taking a more balanced view of my situation, I am a better person. When I think of others as much as I dwell on my own fears and limitations, my life moves into balance. I must remember that attempting to “temper” my negativity should become a daily practice.
Card 6: The Empress. Remember that every step you take into your upper world represents a facet of your potential growth and healing that has not been lived or explored yet. One quality I associate with the Empress is absolute, unqualified self-love. This is something I’ve tried and failed at so many times that I’ve stopped believing it’s obtainable. The Empress is equated with the planet Venus, which in astrology rules over joy and pleasure for their own sake. I took a few moments to visualize how life would look different if I embraced the Empress.
Card 7: Strength. It's hard to pick a favorite Tarot card, but when asked, I usually say, "Strength!" The Strength card challenges common Western cultural conceptions of what this word means. Strength in the Tarot is not about fighting, but about finding alternatives to fighting. The woman pictured on the card meets the lion's fearsomeness with gentleness and compassion. The Strength card is not about enduring or accepting abuse, but rather suggests transforming your experience of the abuse by finding compassion for your abuser. Of course, this is a very lofty interpretation of the Strength card, yet I had a strong visceral sense of how I would be released from trauma if I cultivated compassion for all beings, not just those in my immediate circle of family, friends, and clients.
The Resurrection: The Six of Wands. It wasn't difficult for me to understand how my lost and suppressed victories would be liberated if I re-claimed the Six of Wands; it's a very positive card. On the other hand, it often seems that nothing is more difficult for me than to stand in my own successes and feel entitled to them. It was sobering to see this card as the final step, and know that I will only have the subjective experience of "victory" after I do the hard work of self-love and forgiving my abusers. You may have a harder time with the Resurrection portion of the reading if your Card 4 shows a more literal representation of the trauma you suffered, perhaps a card that resembles a particular person or enacts a painful scene. The best advice I can offer is to let your higher guidance transform the negative association for you. Perhaps you are faced with the Five of Cups, grief, as your Resurrection card. Maybe your guidance is urging you to see that your path to healing lies in actually feeling your emotions and going through the tough work of crying out your sadness. Perhaps you are faced with resurrecting the Devil, a representation of someone who took your power. The resurrected Devil could be hinting that it's OK for you to wield power unapologetically; this behavior doesn't mean you're a sadist like the person who abused you.
The effectiveness of the "Angels and Demons" Tarot spread derives from your Soul's ability to acknowledge pain as your teacher. It allows you to process trauma by taking a negatively-charged and "hot" piece of your personal story, and transforming your thoughts about it. Figuring out how to "resurrect" this odious thing that happened to you and to call it necessary and beneficial to your growth may take days, or even weeks. But I encourage you to stay with the process, and trust the wisdom that makes your Soul feel like singing.