We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Blues in Tarot
Several years ago I happened to be in one of those bored and flipping TV channels modes and though I usually skip right over the country music channel, (Sorry, but it's just not my style) this time I didn't because I heard something deeply soulful and mesmerizing. It was a video by a very young man whose voice did not appear to match his face.

I quickly learned that this artist's name was Jonny Lang and he had begun performing blues professionally when he was a mere fourteen years old. This song is entitled, "Breaking Me" and the desperation in his voice surprised me coming from someone so young. How young? Fifteen.  Fifteen freaking years old and already a bona fide blues guitarist and singer!

I went and saw Jonny Lang in concert last Wednesday. If you like blues, soul, rock or anything in between I highly recommend catching his show. He's a little older now, married, and he's polished his voice and guitar skills and he's only getting better. What does this have to do with tarot? Why, the Blues, of course.

Blues Music is a distinctly American music genre. It is a mixture of African and European styles, produced by African slaves mainly in the southern United States. The songs were meant to be sad and mournful dialogues between the singer and his instrument. The "call-and-response" style is a hallmark of the blues style as well as the passionate emotions and heartbreaking lyrics that speak of loneliness, depression, and oppression. It's a haunting and soulful style and it takes a great deal of musical accomplishment to play it well, but it seems that no matter who you are, everyone can and does "sing the blues" from time to time.

Tarot encompasses the wide range of human experience and emotion, and as such there are a number of cards where the blues are depicted, but the one I feel most singularly represents the emotional landscape of the blues is the Five of Cups.

The grief evident in this card is stark and obvious. The more optimistic among us are quick to point out the cups that are left standing, as many versions of the Five of Cups depict three cups spilled and two remaining, often behind the mourning figure. But here in the Cosmic Deck all five cups are upended and drained. A wilted rose bud lies pathetically in front of her and her face is pinched in a mask of despair. Outside the door the wind blows dead leaves off a bare tree as storm clouds descend. This card hurts.

I like this image because it forbids the hastening of grief. There are no cups standing, no rushing the mourning figure to look at all she has left. There is nothing left. The sadness is overwhelming. Sometimes, no, lots of times, this card actually brings a sense of relief to someone getting their cards read. It acknowledges their pain, it sits with them in their sadness, it tells them, "I know how you feel." Just like the blues. We listen to the songs that pour out their, and our, pain and we say, yes, "I know just how you feel. Me, too." As you lower your head and rock slowly with the beat, you identify with the singer, with the grief and loneliness. Here is a place we should not rush the seeker to leave the fallen cups behind, but instead offer empathy and understanding. In due time they will move on. They will right the cups and fill them again, but for now let us stay with her a moment and share her pain. Listen as she sings that mournful song, feel your heart break in the strains of agonizing despair. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, in every thing there is a season.

To tell people to stop feeling their pain is insensitive at best. To try and move them along to a place where you would feel more comfortable being with them is usually the disguised motivation. Why don't we just tell those slaves of long ago who first sang the blues to just look on the bright side, then? As I've said before, you can't run from grief. It dogs your every step until you sit with it. It commands your attention, your full attention, for a time. A funny thing happens when we finally sit down with our grief, or the grief of someone you know. It passes more quickly than if we attempt to push it away too soon. There is a time for sad songs and an appreciation of the emotions that create those melodies.

Appreciation of sadness? Yes. I said that. For in those deep wells of pain and darkness comes understanding and wisdom. There was a line that director Tom Shadyac cut from the movie Bruce Almighty where God was telling Bruce :"To paint a picture like that, you've got to use some dark colors." He goes on to say,

"You know, the most powerful stories we tell are about people who come from dark colors. They're people who've been challenged by addictions or abuse. And to overcome those things is really the light overcoming the darkness. Without the darkness, you've lost humanity and the power of the light."

In every landscape there must be dark colors. They add richness and depth, a sense of realism and perspective, all so important in art and in life. Without those dark colors the picture is flat, even though all the brighter colors are there. Our time spent in the blues is not wasted nor unnecessary. Even a child of fourteen could find something in his experience to relate to the blues he sang. It's part of the human experience and something some scientists believe we are hardwired to respond to. It has been suggested that certain sad music elicits chills because music hooks directly into the brain's primitive emotional circuits; more specifically, that music has some sort of relationship with the call of an infant crying for its mother. Separation calls are expected to evoke powerful feelings in people and human separation calls have properties related to chill-producing sounds, such that the cry is at once intense, familiar and sad. (If you're interested in the effects of music on the human brain, this paper from the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy is excellent.) It's natural to respond to someone crying and yet our western society makes that response feel unnatural, uncomfortable, and indulgent. That kind of "chin up and all that" nonsense is counterproductive to resolution of grief and the recovery of joy.

When the Five of Cups appears in a reading, recognize the pain. Speak its name. Reach out and respond to that separation call rather than be too quick to point out the silver lining on that dark cloud. Believe me, the grieving one is despondent enough without you reminding her what she should or ought to be feeling instead of this emptiness. She feels it. She hurts. And that is why she is singing the blues.

Cosmic Tarot By Norbert Losche Published by US Games Copyright 1986


  1. Ahhh (((sweetnicole))), may you now sit with those five cups and let your hurt speak until it's done talking. I imagine we all take at least one cup of grief with us...to remind us how it feels when someone we know is grieving, too. When you are done, and only you can be the judge of when that is, you will have no problem seeing past the spillage. And I bet the 5 of cups stops stalking you.

  2. This is beautiful, just so incredibly insightful. And I love the comparison with the Blues. I don't even know what else to say. Thank you.

  3. What can I add? Beautifullly done. You say something(s) that really need to be heard, sung, painted, written, felt ...

  4. Touched a nerve, did I? Well...it's there in all of us. This is what I so love about tarot. It's like that PostSecret.com site -- where you find out how very much alike we all are. How we get away with that while being so incredibly unique is a fascinating mystery to me.

  5. Anonymous3:40 PM

    What a great analysis! :)

    In the decks I use, the RWS and the Gilded, the person is grieving over THREE spilled cups, with two upright cups right behind him that he's not noticing. I use it to point out to the querent that all is NOT lost, and to remember to focus not only on what's lost, but what remains intact.

    In the image you posted, all five cups are spilled... but the *woman* is still upright. So the message I take from that image is, "Even if the cups ARE spilled, YOU'RE still here. This isn't the end of the world. You'll be able to get through this rough time and fill more cups."

  6. It's true, shelikes2read, what you say. In the RWS, too, there is a bridge across the water that shows the water that the figure is not looking at because he/she is so bowed with grief. When they are done with their tears, and only then, will they turn and see the cups, notice the bridge, and begin to recover and rebuild what they have lost. While I understand the encouragement that all is not lost, the seeker can certainly feel that way and I believe this card affirms them in that feeling. Sometimes, in order to move through grief, one needs to be heard where they sit, have someone (even if that someone is tarot) acknowledge their "all is lost" feeling and that alone can enable them to move on. This is why I choose not to rush the seeker through this card to the remaining standing cups or to the bridge. They will find them when they lift their heads.

  7. Norma6:09 PM

    I think all living things respond to sound vibration, and perhaps give them out too... perhaps plants as well. I'm reminded of when I lived near a fire department and how the dogs across the street would mournfully howl along with the sirens. I too would stop and howl along... deep belly howling like the dogs taught me. Wonderful!


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