The Hermeneutical Card Definition Repertoire: The Tower (XVI) as Genesis’s Babel


This blog is supposed to be a source of research information regarding the Tarot, so let’s get back to that realm… the thing is, that the Tarot broaches into other (all) facets of life—as we’ll see and explain soon—so we don’t have to abandon the current affairs and social justice concerns that envelop us right now… We can allow the Tarot to help us understand the world around us by focusing on the things it has to say…


The Tower card (XVI) has seen several iterations in its life in the Tarot deck… historically early in its life it was known as “The House of God,” and while it still depicted a fortified structure, naked humans were shown to be walking out of its entrance, hands covering faces in either shame or distress, while the structure burned with flames. That is quite an extreme image for something called “The House of God” (since most of us immediately think of a church or temple when that term is used), and we can mostly only conjecture what the connection might have been. In some senses, the individuals retreating from the structure resemble the naked Adam and Eve, and perhaps the fortified structure are the walls of Eden from which they are being expelled (thus the distress and sorrow). Perhaps the flame is the anger of God forcing them from their edenic garden, or alternately the flaming sword held by the angel tasked with guarding against their return to the realm.


Four early images of the tarot


The card soon evolved into the image we currently visualize for this card: a fortified, castle-like structure being hit by lightening (often still conceptualized as the anger of God or Zeus or catastrophe rained-down upon the structure or its occupants), and dwellers within ejected from its heights, devastatingly cast down upon the rocks below—a blow of fate which entails drastic or sincere alteration or change, a catastrophe from which return to a former paradigm is not really possible.


Four later/contemporary examples of the Tower card


The Tower card, by itself, is possibly the most drastic or devastating card of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Although amateur tarot enthusiasts may seem to be more intimidated by the Death card (XIII) or the Devil card (XV), it is The Tower that indicates or reveals the most drastic, life-altering, confounding changes that we are forced to deal with in life.


While several (actual) historical events might be attributable to the visual depiction represented in The Tower card, including several significant military maneuvers and battles that occurred in European history, probably the most associative “storyline” with a “tower” recognizable to the common person is the fabled Tower of Babel, as told in the Book of Genesis (chapter 11) in the Bible. Joan Acocella wrote a book review piece in The New Yorker 1 recently which illustrates the moral take-away of this biblical story perfectly:


“As the Book of Genesis tells it, God had no sooner made a covenant with the survivors of the Flood, agreeing that He would never again try to drown humankind, than they did something new to annoy Him. Settling on a Mesopotamian plain, they made bricks and mortar, and began building a tower whose top, as they planned it, would reach Heaven—that is, to where God lived. God did not fail to notice what they were doing:

“And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builder.

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth: and they left off to build the city.

“According to Ester Schor, in her new book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (Metropolitan Publishers), this famous story, of the Tower of Babel, represents a sort of second original sin. ‘If mortality is what it is like to live after Eden, misunderstanding,’ she writes, ‘is what it is like to live after Babel.’

“This is not just a psychological misfortune but, more pressingly, a political one. Because we don’t speak the same language as our neighbors, we can’t see their point of view, and therefore we are more likely to rob them and kill them.

“For thousands of years, people have taken this matter quite seriously. Ambitious organizations such as the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church made sure that their members, whatever their mother tongue, learned a second, common language…”


There are several facets and themes that can be taken away from this simple and short story, not the least of which is the theme of pride or hubris—a recurrent theme in the tarot. But also the rise and fall (and fall and rise and apostasy and redemption) of mankind, and perhaps the ladder of divine ascent (or virtuous living towards Christian salvation, as Europeans would have envisioned through the images of the Tarot). There are also perplexing theological questions that can be asked about the Babel story: It doesn’t seem like a very compassionate God who would “confound” his people and disperse them around the earth. That seems more like a trickster-type of move, an “undoing” that would be more akin to the work of the Devil, doesn’t it?… (Don’t think theologians haven’t vexed themselves with the thought…)


Climbing the ladder up the Tower of Babel


Acocella, however, is writing all this as a preface to her review of Schor’s book, which contains a large section devoted to the history of Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof’s invention of the language commonly known today as Esperanto. Zamenhof’s intention was to create a unifying common language of man, not unlike the Latin that served as the Roman Empire’s unifying common linguistic communication form. But this was Zamenhof’s 19th-century proclivity, to be inspired as a Jewish Polish citizen with Russian and German connections—to create a sort of idealized language born of a dream of escapist humanitarianism, connecting men in a spiritual comradeship. (It didn’t ever come to that—Zamenhof died before the great wars broke out, and his children were all murdered by the Nazis. Today his invented language is a novelty of linguistics enthusiasts.)


Our interest in this story of Babel is of importance because of its prevalence as a meme during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. As a storytelling tool, Medieval people certainly took the moral of the Tower of Babel to heart (as we might today). It was no wonder that the “dark Moors” were so frightening and indecipherable, and that tales from China brought back along the Silk Road were so fantastical. In a non-globalized world, insular in their feudal hamlets and valleys, Medieval citizens could be traumatized by the variances of culture and language and customs. Such differences easily condition a sense of nationalism, and equally condition people to put up barriers against incursions of foreign ways.


Too few were the Marco Polos, adventurers and curiosity seekers, storytellers of their magnificent travels and journeys to exotic places. Then, as now, perhaps the only inducement towards cross-cultural exchange was…money and personal enrichment through trade.



12th-to-13th-century mosaic arch in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Monreale, Sicily, Italy depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel


During the Middle Ages, Babel was not only the perfect explanation for the disparateness of nations and people and cultures and language, but it was also a perfect excuse for nationalists: It’s all too easy to call one’s prejudices “the Will of God,” if it was God who divided men into their various disparate nations and languages in the first place. It becomes easy to rationalize the conquering of outside nations if one envisions God’s acts as bestowing most-favored-status or principle-superiority upon oneself among his variously dispersed nations. Seeing enemies everywhere and declaring war against the heathens is a small step for the ethnocentric.


How do we dissent from this prevailing human tendency towards fear and counteract the ideas of Babel/God-induced dispersion among the many nationalities of men? Is a common language the answer? Re-integration or re-absorption of the many disparate nations and continents of mankind into a single global nation?


…Not likely. The philosophical question of which nation and which language should be the re-unifying standard becomes the sticking point. And ultimately power and economics organically define such things, just or not. Furthermore, as you might be able to discern, nationalism and xenophobia are alive and well in our contemporary world, despite globalization and visual and cultural exchange among cultures like never before. We invent conspiracy theories, it seems, for the sole purpose of maintaining our divisions and fears of those outside our contemporary “hamlets and valleys.”


14th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the Tower of Babel

A 14th-century illuminated manuscript illustration depicting the Tower of Babel


There is no shortage of academic investigations that have tried to find the origin of language. The list of available titles is way too extensive to try to list here. Linguistic archeologists, paleontologists, molecular biologists, and anatomical reconstructionists have all contributed to the field of ancient etymology. Researchers conjecture that the earliest single (original) language existed approximately 150,000 years ago.2 Is the solution to our distraught dispersion, the ultimate angst of separation, to be found in studying the past—the “big-bang” of language? Of course not. But we can learn from our past folly in gauging how we have acted in response to our variability; we can come to a greater holistic perspective by taking stock of our common ancestry, noting the magnificent and gigantic leaps in creativity and diversity our species has made in a relatively short time frame. Such a perspective might even help us realize that we are still an evolving species, capable of vastly more diversity and creativity likely to occur in the future annals of our species’ story.


Acocella touches on this philosophy, too, in a very eloquent summary of her book review:


“People are apt to make fun of other people’s habit of talking about the weather to their neighbors in the elevator. They shouldn’t make fun. By invoking the one thing that we know we have in common with others, we throw a rope across the divide, asserting that, whatever our differences, we do share something: when it rains on one of us, it’s going to rain on the other one, too.3 Schor quotes the Spanish Esperantist Jorge Camacho: ‘Esperanto continues to give me something…which I don’t find anywhere else, an irrational sense of directly belonging to the world.’ A language in common, a few words that we can say to one another or, even if we don’t learn the words that we can say to one another or, even if we don’t learn the words, an awareness of the interna ideo: it’s something, a hook.”


And this is all to say that we—as tarot readers—we DO have a hook, as well as what some might call a common language. It’s visual, some might say like hieroglyphics, and it’s used around the world by people in every sort of culture and who speak in every kind of language. The Tarot has a core pidgin vocabulary that can be interpreted in any dialect. It’s our way of speaking in tongues. The images of the Tarot are our hook…they help us cross the divide and delve into our commonality, reaching down to our basest and most ancestral concepts, emotions, and feelings.


Dang,… We might just have cracked the code, you guys.


For even when we listen to others and everything sounds like gobblety-gook, like “babble,” when nothing makes any sense and there is no turning back to our comfort zone…The Star card (XVII) appears next in the sequence of the Tarot, bringing with it a glimmer of hope.






[1]       Acocella, Joan. “Return to Babel: The rise and fall of Esperanto.” The New Yorker, October 31, 2016.


[2]       See for example, John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Co, LLC, 2001).


[3]       This is a fine metaphor…except when one considers that after his presidential inauguration ceremony, Donald Trump invented the story that the rain—which fell steadily during the ceremony and visibly forced most viewing attendees to put on rain ponchos—suddenly and miraculously stopped at the  very moment when he placed his hand upon the Bibles to take his oath. Such myth-making, and absolute lies, ought to be regarded extremely warily,…And I might interject that they only further dispel and disperse our beliefs, loyalties, and common values among the people of the United States and the world. Such falsehoods only further exacerbate the original confoundedness and confusion that God’s trickster-act in the Genesis story of the Bible illustrates.





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