A past exhibit at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland showcased a Renaissance-era small, oval book of hours (a prayer or meditation book) that features illustrations that do not contain any human figures.
No human figures? …”WHY???” you might be asking. Human figures help us relate to things. As humans ourselves, we “read” humans—their body language, their facial expressions, their movements. We love looking at portraits because our brains long to have familiarity reflected back at itself, and other human faces provide a semblance with which our brains are comfortable.
Sure, our most popular tarot decks contain human figures in them… Even representations of “things” like “Strength” or “Temperance” or “Justice” are given personified humanoid forms so that we can relate to them better as human traits. Sometimes, though, we need to give our brains a challenge. There are some decks out there that do not contain human figures. Some don’t even contain animal figures (to which are brains are completely willing to apply human characteristics in the absence of anything resembling our own species). But some decks go REALLY minimalist, and either use icons to represent themes in each card, or, as in the case of the recently published Augenblick Tarot (2017) by Shannon Loftis, the majority of the deck cards are represented by places.
The thing about places is that…you can insert yourself into them. And curators at the Walters Art Museum conjectured the same thing about the illustrations that were made for the Oval Book of Hours Manuscript:
What makes this manuscript so unique is the approach of the artist, who provided the settings for key Biblical events but left them devoid of any human presence. These stage-like settings might have been intended to encourage mental and spiritual exercises, inviting the viewers to imagine themselves within the scene. Reading prayers was a way of connecting to the divine, and these images may have provided a more active way to imagine that connection, rather than passively looking at a scene where the spiritual connection is happening to someone else. [In the picture at the top of this blog], the Oval Hours is open to a scene that traditionally illustrates St. John, who was exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, receiving a vision of the Apocalypse. But in this illustration, only a pen case, ink pot, and book remain—St. John is absent. From above, a divine hand holds out a book detailing the future Apocalypse, while other traditional imagery described in the Bible—such as the pillars of fire—dance in the air. 1
This theory brings to mind an approach that I learned from tarot master, Mary K. Greer during the Northwest Tarot Symposium a couple of years ago. Greer’s recommendation—particularly for clients who don’t have a specific question to address or who have a harder time relating to the concepts defined by the cards—was to ask the client to physically describe the scene depicted in a single tarot card presented before them. After doing that short exercise, she then recommended asking clients to “insert” or “immerse” themselves into the landscape or scene of the card and describe it a second time from a first-person perspective.
For example, a client imagining themselves within the Two-of-Pentacles card might say something like: “There is a man in a tall hat standing in front of me, trying to impress me with his juggling abilities…He’s juggling so fast that it all appears like one big rope in the shape of a sideways ‘8.’ I’m entranced, but I’m distracted because the ground and the water are waving up-and-down like there’s an earthquake, and it’s freaking me out, like I don’t know if I’m going to fall or not…And there’s a ship not far from the shore that looks like it’s in distress and I’m terrified of having to watch it be torn apart and thinking about all those people onboard drowning in the tumultuous sea…”
Not only has the client just participated in an extremely creative visualization exercise whereby they’ve imagined the landscape coming to life, but there are several facets of the client’s narrative that could be explored on their own (as a means to introduce topics that are valid entrance points for discussion or evaluation): What in life is might be making you feel so unstable that you have fears about falling down? Watching others suffer—as in the imagined shipwreck—might be a residual element of witnessed trauma; are there traumatic events that might possibly need facing or resolution? How does the client feel about someone trying to impress him or her with juggling tricks? Lame? Or Cute? …The point is that the client has shared parts of how his or her imagination works, and an intuitive reader may be able to pick up on subconscious themes.
This technique can also work on a solitary reading that you do for yourself. Sometimes we draw a card in response to a question we’ve asked and the image just doesn’t immediately “click” with us. More amateur readers might be spurred to draw a clarifying card at such points (which is fine to do). But more seasoned tarot readers tend to know that the universal themes contained in the tarot deck usually have something to say regardless of how obtuse it might seem to begin with.
Spending the time to meditate on your drawn card for a while usually reveals ideas that may not have been readily evident at first sight. And making the effort to try this exercise—of inserting oneself into the stage-scene of your tarot card—may release creative explorations that you didn’t think were possible even for yourself! (Hasn’t a strange daydream ever surprised you before?)
Next time you’re “stuck” on a single card draw, try this immersion exercise recommended by Mary K. Greer, and see what you come up with.
Mary K. Greer (author of 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card [Llewellyn Publications, 2006] and The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals [Llewellyn Publications, 2002]) is scheduled to be one of the featured presenters of the 2018 Readers’ Studio Tarot Conference in New York City in April.
Other headline presenters will include Rachel Pollack (author of Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot [HarperCollins Publishers, 1980 re-published 1997]) and Benebell Wen (author of Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth [North Atlantic Books, 2015]).
I will also be attending the 2018 NYC Readers’ Studio Tarot Conference as well as the 2018 Tarot & Psychology Conference from April 25 through April 29th. If you are planning to attend either of these events, please make sure to find me during the week and say ‘hello!’