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

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

You Be The Judge
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I drew a card asking what shall I write on today and got one of the most curious and difficult cards in the deck: Judgment. Thanks a lot, tarot. As I looked into the symbolism and iconography of the card, more questions than answers came to me. I looked at dozens of medieval depictions of the Last Judgment and while I could see some similarities, more differences presented themselves. Such as the fact that a Christ figure is noticeably absent in the tarot image whereas he figures prominently in every depiction of the Last Judgment I could find. He is typically front and center, you can't miss him. Also, in most tarot images of Judgment, there is no yawning chasm of Hell and demons dragging the condemned off to eternal damnation, but neither is there a pearly gate with angelic escorts. Typically Archangel Michael is guarding the entrance/exit to Hell and supervising the whole process. He's not anywhere to be found in the tarot images either. There's usually an angel or two, but not him. Also, why is Judgment numbered 20 in the tarot deck and not 21, which is the World?

Comparing these images and reading about them was really interesting. I highly recommend this exercise for anyone interested in the iconography of the tarot. My research, which was far from in depth, yielded some fascinating discoveries and plenty of conjecture on my part. What the image on the Judgment card seems to be portraying is not the Last Day of Christian and Islamic lore, but the beginning of the end times instead. It is said in Islamic literature that the angel Israfel will blast a trumpet that will awaken the slumbering dead in preparation for judgment. In Christian tradition it is the angel Gabriel that wakes the dead. However, tarot designers in a very Christian culture would likely not have relied on Islamic depictions of the Final Judgment, though some cultural crossover was probable. The later esoterics were quick to see this image as relating to Israfel and that the number 20, coming before the end of the arcana sequence, likely pointed not to a finality, but an awakening to something higher that could lead to a merging or union with the divine as depicted in the World. The absence of the Christ judge figure may also be symbolizing that we might go through this experience, metaphorically, many times before a final, literal Last Judgment. This can be interpreted in reincarnation-like terms or in phases of one's life in this lifetime, indicating a cyclical or recurring theme as we spiral up in our maturity and growth.

Because the themes of the Last Judgment in Christian theology are rather stark and frightening, many tarotists find this card daunting. Typically, Christian renditions of the final days include plagues and destruction, a bloody apocalypse that precedes the destruction of the earth, and a Christ who comes not in peace but in fierce judgment, separating those who will spend eternity in paradise and those who will spend eternity enduring unspeakable torment. However, with so many of those key elements missing from the image on the card, while they may be somewhat implied, they are not the primary focus. Instead, the message of the card seems to be that of awakening, of responding to a call, a divine calling.

Without the appearance of the Christ judge in the card, who then is performing this judgment? Not the angel. The angel is blasting the sound that awakens the dead unto judgment. With no threat of Hell to be seen, the dead arise with anticipation and eagerness to embrace what is to come. The judge, therefore, is you. You decide your own fate with this card. You can choose to respond to the higher call or remain in the grave. The image itself encourages a positive response, but ultimately the choice is yours. Of course, there are few moments in our lives quite as momentous as the image suggests, though it is apt at times of true crisis and major turning points when we make really significant life decisions that set us in an entirely new direction. In lesser terms, the card may be indicating an area of your life which has died and which might be either left behind or injected with a breath of new life. The Hebrew letter associated with this card is Shim and it means breath. In Jewish lore, God breathed life into Adam and Eve at the beginning and in Christian accounts the Holy Spirit is transmitted by breath to new believers. This card indicates a kind of being "born again," in which something old has died and is being left behind. As the dead rise from their tombs they leave behind both that which has protected and yet trapped them. They leave the "trappings" of that old life, the graveclothes that bound them, the stagnant decay of an existence that was numb, dark, and well...dead.

The "wake up call" blasted by the angel indicates that we might get a clue about the need to leave certain ways behind by means of a message that comes not so much from within ourselves but from without. The divine has a way of getting our attention in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways through our environment. I would say this message is of the latter sort. It's more likely to be, as one reader put it, "In your face with a whistle!" They don't call it a "wake up call" for nothing. A subtle alarm clock would be rather useless. As such, this card indicates an area of your life to which you have been "asleep." That could be a lost passion, something that used to breathe life into your existence but which you have set aside in some dark closet of your past, entombing it to memory. It's not too late to revive, this card says, and allow it to bring a sense of living back to your life again. It could mean the awakening to your true calling in life after spending years building a life that isn't fulfilling. One might associate this card to a midlife crisis many experience that can cause one to redirect their careers and their energies.

In any case, whether monumentous or mundane, Judgment is a realization that one has been going about something wrong and in order to right things one judges one's self and makes a decision to respond to that pulling inside to a higher form of living. Without the scary imagery of fire and brimstone, demons and eternal Judge, this card releases one to experience life in a fuller, more joyous way. Having worked one's way through the Major Arcana, through Justice which is more like that Cosmic Judge, Karma, and the Wheel, over whose changes we have no control, Judgment places you in the hot seat of your own destiny. Each day, in fact, we are given many opportunities to choose life or resign ourselves to death. Will you answer the call to life?

Cartomanzia Italiana, Solleone, Italy, 19th century
The Last Judgement by Michelangelo at Web Gallery of Art

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