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Secrets And Elixirs
Arcana are profound secrets. At its Latin root, the word means "chest." One kind of chest is a storage box where, as in the Ark of the Covenant, a sacred text might safely be kept. "Arca" also refers to Noah's remedy against the Flood, a boat inside the ribs of which a remnant of terrestrial life could survive. In alchemical thought, "arcana" refers to another kind of remedy, a marvelous elixir for the prolongation of life. Linking these senses of the word, we find the themes of containers (and more broadly of vessels) that save from disaster. In the case of alchemy, the vessel is an alembic, in which a remedy is produced.
What has all this to do with Tarot, or with the Goddess? Madame Blavatsky, the late-nineteenth-century theosophist, links arcane wisdom to "Arka, the Divine Virgin -- Mother of the Heavens." Likewise, Robert Graves mentions that Arka was the home of the "Arkites" -- ancient Canaanites who worshipped the Moon Goddess Astarte or Ishtar. Just as Noah's Ark was a craft for preserving life, so the Arcana in Tarot are a vessel for salvaging spiritual wisdom from the period when the Goddess was worshiped. According to Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, the predecessor of Noah was Nuah, a Chaldean Mother Goddess.
Not only are the Arcana an Ark: in Erich Neumann's view, the Ark is a woman. In his massive study The Great Mother, Neumann compares the female body at length to boats, ships, and arks, as well as to cups, chalices, and cauldrons. Likewise, Gareth Knight intuitively links "the Womb of the Great Mother" with cauldrons, arks,and the shape of the crescent moon. Like the moon, the cauldron is a preeminent symbol of the Goddess, and returns us to alchemy's elixirs. On the physical plane, alchemy did involve attempts to change base metals to gold, but as psychologist C. G. Jung has shown, the esoteric quest of the alchemists was a transformation of the self.
What the Major Arcana promise is just such a transformation, which is based, in the Motherpeace images, upon a rediscovery of the Goddess. In the dominant culture of Patriarchy, the Goddess survives mainly in esoteric forms. As we have seen, Arcana both safeguard secret wisdom and, if properly used, produce a cure. The cure, however, requires work. Unlike passive experiences such as watching television, Arcana demand active involvement. The remedy they offer takes the form not of an easily swallowed pill, but of a process of self-discovery.
In order to grasp the value of the secrets, we need to suspend disbelief and open our imaginations to dreamlike images from another realm. If these matriarchal images strike us as strange, it is not because they lack relevance for our lives today, but because, on the contrary, they directly challenge the premises of the dominant, patriarchal culture.
The Major Arcana are the twenty-two Roman-numeraled Tarot cards that represent cosmic cycles of creation and return -- what occult science calls "involution" and "evolution," the larger-than-life journey that the soul may undergo. In esoteric terms, everything in the world comes into manifestation and goes out again. According to "natural law," this process just keeps happening on every level of the universe. The most interesting of these cycles for most human beings is that of the human soul, which comes into a physical body, presumably learns some valuable truths during each lifetime, and "distills" the essences of those experiences when it "passes once more to the other side." Back and forth, in and out, the soul lives and learns, moving in a progressive direction toward "liberation" or "cosmic consciousness," which releases the spirit from what has been called the "captivity" of the body. What is the nature of this captivity? Not that a soul must pass into a human body., As Buddhists tell us, this passage is a great and holy gift. A soul is captive as long as the person in whose body it resides is unconscious of its holy presence. The goal of spiritual development is to become conscious of the soul and reunite with it. In this sense, the Major Arcana offer a spiritual discipline, at least when they are used properly as an object of meditation.
A similar lesson was taught in the initiation schools of every early civilization. From Druid to Egyptian priesthoods, from Mayan to Arctic shamanism, this "teaching" was provided for certain members of the community to help them understand the purpose of human life on the planet and live harmoniously as they took part in individual and collective evolution. We do not know how far back this teaching went. An oral tradition does not leave traces as easily found or interpreted as a hieroglyph. However, it would seem probable that around the end of the "paradisiacal" era of human history, the Wise Ones understood that a Dark Age was coming. Seeking to preserve their teachings for posterity, these prehistoric "sages" expressed their wisdom in pictorial form, some of which has survived through the millennia as "secret doctrine." Tarot traditionally draws upon this source; and thus the Major Arcana contain seeds of ancient and sophisticated knowledge of cosmic law and of Goddess-worship. During the past few thousand years, Patriarchy has suppressed this knowledge, sometimes with terrible violence.
In America today, Tibetan Buddhists are preparing for a similar Dark Age. Because of their oracular understanding that things will get worse before they get better, these Buddhists are gathering the sacred teaching in what they hope will be "safe space" where it might survive in the years ahead.
In Tarot, the Arcana have taken various graphic forms. In the popular Waite deck, for example, the figures are given medieval costumes and settings. The High Priestess, for instance, is shown as a kind of prioress or Mother Superior.Motherpeace. Copyright © by Vicki Noble. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.