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The Tarot Garden Library

About the Author

Ed Buryn is an author, photographer, poet, editor and bookseller currently residing in California. He has written several best-selling travel books, but his most well-known contribution in the world of tarot is his noteworthy and thought-provoking William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination.


The William Blake Tarot:
Old Symbols for a New Age
by Ed Buryn

[NOTE: This article is transcribed from a paper presented at the First International Tarot Conference in Melbourne Australia, July 12, 1997. We are pleased to present it here, in our online library of articles, with Mr. Buryn's permission.]
4 of Music - Musing

The idea of a New Age is, of course, not new. Many periods long gone were contemporaneously defined as such. Today's oncoming New Age, however, is more promising than most. It's not just the onset of the millennium, for many critical indicators signal that our New Age is really unprecedented, warranted by everything from the end of the Mayan calendar and Harmonic Convergence to the prediction of revolutionary breakthroughs like nanotechnology, biogenetic technology, hydrogen fuel cells, quantum computing, and real-time translators.

For a more mundane example, how about just plain old data overload? With the exponential growth of information of every sort, as propelled by business, government, media, publishing, computers, and the internet, for the first time we will soon be deluged with more data than we can possibly process. When we reach this point, societally or personally, with too much to think about, we face a real danger of becoming anesthetized, paralyzed, or psychotic - especially because so much of the ever burgeoning data is also wildly contradictory.

 However, as we near the limits of our rational abilities this may well stimulate a major awakening of our inner or intuitive abilities. In both the near and distant future we are likely to explore and greatly expand our imaginative minds and spiritual perceptions, which have enormous untapped power to reshape our personal and global realities. Albert Einstein said that "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it." Obviously we need to develop magical consciousness to deal with the realization that scientific progress and material prosperity by themselves are not enough. We must become aware of other dimensions of life if we are to survive, let alone prosper. Buckminster Fuller said that "the more we master the physical universe the more prepared we are to transform to higher consciousness." Now is apparently the time. Those of us living in this amazing historical niche at the end of the 20th century, in what is being called a period of "extreme novelty," are about to experience the most profound New Age so far - the third millennium, the third wave, the third degree, the third rail, the Third Man, the 3-ring circus, the 3-star show, where we may well meet the three Fates, the three Graces, and The Trinity itself.

I agree with Terence McKenna who said that "the future of communication is the future of the evolution of the human soul." In what promises to be a new psychic frontier working more intensively with symbols and dreams, these explorations in communication are unlikely to be mastered by teams of scientists and engineers equipped with colossal computers, or by corporations and governments unleashing unlimited funds. Many future breakthroughs will be advanced and experienced by unique independent persons possessing only an open mind and the courage to evolve. Individual consciousness will be the key to making "an evolutionary transition to a higher level of culture," which I think will be about the recovery of Soul. From this point of view, it seems destined that Tarot, a multifaceted metaphysical wisdom system that develops both intuition and imagination, will become ever more prominent. Inevitably, the future will emphasize the increased use and understanding of its archetypal and subliminal symbology as a powerful adjunct to the old establishmentarian approaches to reality-comprehension. Already, the so-called "new physics" suggests the possibility that such things as psychic powers may have an underlying physical basis, the understanding of which may profoundly change our view of the universe and ourselves.

In turning to the symbols and archetypes of the Tarot, we go back to old symbols from the Medieval and Renaissance periods onto which were grafted Romantic and Victorian interpretations. Many symbols have lost their original meanings or are less clear than they once were. For example, we note that most decks today employ symbols with outdated referents such as the court-card figures (kings and queens, et cetera), suit-glyphs such as swords and pentacles, and points of view based on ideas of secrecy and occultist methodologies. Because the new millennium will call everyone to seek new levels of intuitive and imaginative insight, it may well be time to revise our Tarot symbology and reconstruct some of our underlying assumptions about the tools of Tarot that will be used in our brave new world.

One of the reasons I designed the William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination was to introduce a new yet classically proven symbology based on universal truths that are eminently suitable for psychological and spiritual awareness. William Blake's art and ideas represent a tested vision of life That is eternal and yet fresh. Especially today, with our neo-Romantic renewal of interest in artistic, emotional, visionary, and transcendental views of reality, Blake's works blaze forth with extraordinary depth and ability to inspire. After all, Tarot cards are just colored pieces of paper; what makes them "work" is what Blake called "the Divine Arts of Imagination," which he also called "the Eternal Body of Man" that "manifests in his Works of Art."

VI - Knowledge

The earliest Tarot cards, which date from the mid-15th century, were apparently used primarily for gaming. It was not until 1781, when Blake was 24 years old, that the Frenchman Antoine Court de Gebelin asserted that the cards were receptacles of the ancient Egyptian mysteries. This started what is sometimes called the 1st Tarot Revolution, because it turned Tarot from what had been a parlor game towards becoming, first, a divination fad, then a magical method, and finally a metaphysical system. Blake was apparently unaware of this occult revolution, which took place at the same time as the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution). His uninvolvement in Tarot can be deduced from the fact that most of Blake's influences are traceable in his works, in references to books he was reading, and people that he met.

His Tarot ignorance is hardly surprising, for Tarot was unknown in England at the time, and there was no tradition, as in Italy, of the game of Tarocchi being played. Moreover, England and France were at war and there was little exchange of ideas. For another thing, the new magical view of Tarot was in its infancy, with scarcely any audience outside France. The few books written about Tarot were unavailable and untranslated until the late 19th century. The prevailing intellectual climate of the time supported a belief in a rational god and a clockwork universe, as propounded by Newton, Bacon, Locke, and other thinkers of the Age of Reason, and so there was little interest or room for the concepts of Tarot. Finally, England had long forbidden the importation of all foreign playing cards to protect the home printing industry. There were no Tarot decks produced in Great Britain, nor could any be imported. In fact, the Rider-Waite deck was the first Tarot in English, and was not published until our own century.

Nevertheless, Blake mystically required a deep and comprehensive view of life, and thus began to develop his own spiritual system in accordance with his famous dictum: "I must create a system or be enslav'd by another man's." In effect, Blake deliberately set out to invent his own version of Tarot, or rather, what Tarot was eventually to become: a profound metaphysical tool for personal and spiritual development. In his many works of poetry and painting, Blake gradually defined a complex personal mythology in which godlike characters he called Zoas symbolize the divine aspects of the human psyche or soul. In the William Blake Tarot these archetypal figures and their mythic roles are depicted in what I call the Tarot Triumphs, which exactly correspond to the traditional Major Arcana, although many are renamed to reflect Blake's view of the Tarot concepts. As far as the workings of the psychical forces, especially in their forms of art activity, Blake defined these as being fourfold; and therefore in the William Blake Tarot these functions are represented in what I call the four Creative Process Suits, which exactly correspond to the traditional Minor Arcana. By renaming the so-called Tarot Major and Minor Arcana as Triumphs and Creative Processes, I have intentionally discarded the idea of Tarot "secrets," for this is a reflection of a century-old, Victorian mindset opposed to the ideas of openness and spiritual equality. In fact, the term "arcana" (or secrets) was not applied to the Tarot until the mid-19th century (by the occultist author Paul Christian), and as another example, the traditional suit of Denier or Coins was not called the suit of Pentacles (or "talismans") until even later. Focusing on nomenclature may seem trivial, but, in fact, reflects a serious view that the tools of soul transformation and the deepest powers of mind should be reserved to an elite group of magicians for ritualistic purposes.

IX - Imagination

Only an open, overt, accessible, cooperative model of thinking and acting can induce the mass of people to strive to integrate themselves into an expanded, millennial view of the world. Openness to change and exposure to new ideas and new kinds of functioning leads to innovation and progress, to growing tolerance and appreciation of diversity and expansion of personal power. The opposite view, with its ideas of mystery and privilege, is closed and more likely to inspire fear and rigidity. The way we name and use our symbols is of great importance.

In the Blake Tarot, the four Creative Process Suits are named after Blake's four "arts in Eternity" - Painting instead of Pentacles, Science instead of Swords, Music instead of Cups, and Poetry instead of Wands. These evocative and action-oriented suit-names stimulate awareness of our godlike powers of creativity and healing through art. The prevailing suit names are less appropriate for open-ended interpretation. Pentacles represent talismans of protection around material concerns, whereas Painting focuses on the artistic depiction of the world and its people; Swords tend to suggest conflict and pain whereas Science suggests mental exploration and the search for understanding; Cups are enclosures or containers for our emotions whereas Music suggests the open expression of our passions; Wands are power objects whereas Poetry expresses eternal truths. In like manner, the Tarot Triumphs, which have historic overtones of the triumphal parades of the Italian Renaissance, suggest the magnificent stages of life through which our souls must pass, and the ways we can personally triumph in our lives. Personally, I find this more appealing and more pertinent than the clandestine mumbo-jumbo suggested by names that mean the Big and Little Secrets!

Another innovation unique to the Blake Tarot is the inclusion of an additional (or 79th) card with the dual numeration of 00 (double-naught) and (infinity-sign or lemniscate). Based on Blake's central idea of Eternity as the soul's true home, it represents a point of departure and return, a goal and a reminder of our spiritual reality and destiny. In one sense, all the other cards in the Tarot pack can be derived from, and grounded in, this new card.

Next, and equally important, is Blake's assignment of the elements to the four arts, which became my four suits. These are vital keys to understanding Blake's spiritual view of life, and for using Tarot as a spiritual system. Blake's use of the elemental correspondences is extremely precise and intentional. Although seemingly idiosyncratic, his use of the elements is, in fact, based on a definite spiritual understanding of how the universe works.

Elemental Water is associated by Blake with the world of Matter because material things are mostly made of water or depend on it; for example, both the human body and planetary body are approximate 71% water. Water is also the first element mentioned in the Bible. Blake asserts that matter (and everyday reality) is an illusion of the senses; although seemingly solid and permanent, our bodies and all material things are as fluid and protean in nature as water, when viewed from an eternal perspective. Painting is designated the art (and suit) of depicting the ordinary and practical matters of humanity. Blake specifically symbolizes the human body by clouds because although seemingly of substance, it only too soon evaporates and disappears when viewed from Eternity. Clouds and running water are used as symbols of element Water in the borders of the cards of the suit of Painting, which correspond to Pentacles.

Elemental Air is associated with Mind, the intellect that, although insubstantial, is yet capable of roaming the entire universe; therefore Science is designated the art (and suit) for understanding how reason and logic seek to define and control our reality. Stars are used as symbols of universal Air in the borders of the cards of the suit of Science, which correspond to Swords.

Elemental Fire is associated with Emotion, which to Blake is an overwhelming force neither material nor mental but one that sings to our souls; therefore Music is designated the art (and suit) for expressing how it feels to be human in all its joy and terror. In the Blake deck, emotion is described more as fiery passion than traditional watery sentiment. Flames and smoke symbolize elemental Fire in the borders of the cards of the suit of Music, which corresponds to Cups.

Elemental Earth is seen as eternally everlasting and therefore associated with Imagination or Spirit, the prophetic voice of humanity that magically and everlastingly renews itself; therefore Poetry is designated the art (and suit) for speaking the beautiful and permanent truths that Imagination creates. Poetry thus represents the true ground of reality, which is spiritual in nature. The long lived, ever-fruiting, and potentially intoxicating grapevine is used to symbolize magical Earth in the borders of the cards of the suit of Poetry, which corresponds to Wands. The entire key to Blake's system, and part of its revolutionary appeal, is that elemental Earth unequivocally represents Imagination and Spirit, thus asserting the firm and solid belief that these are the only permanent forces in the universe, literally the ground of reality. The illusion of Matter becomes symbolized by Water, as mentioned before, and the emotions or passions become Fire.

One way of thinking about the assignments of the elements is that the Rider Waite-Smith pack describes our everyday reality and its elements work well at that level, while the Blake deck looks beyond the physical plane to higher reality of spiritual substance. By the way, the Blake deck uses equivalency glyphs so that the standard elements can still be used as appropriate. In this standard scheme, as we know, Earth is associated with Matter or Pentacles, Water with Cups, and Fire with Wands. The association of Fire with Wands, in particular, can be thought of as representing our intense, fiery expansiveness and yearning for Spirit. When we shift our point of view to Blake's mystical vision, the way we see the elements is transformed by deeper insight. In particular, our yearning for Spirit, which was fiery, now transforms mystically into Earth, representing the fruition of our yearning in the ground of reality, where only Imagination rules eternally.

00 - Eternity

There are many other new features incorporated in the William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination in the same spirit of combining the old and new, but I leave these to its users to discover and employ for themselves. We can now reasonably say that after two centuries of intensive study and development by many artists and metaphysicians, Tarot is finally beginning to be recognized as a Western wisdom system comparable to those in the Oriental and Eastern traditions. Many of us here, for example, would agree that Tarot, after an extremely checkered and peripatetic history, has finally reached a high degree of practical perfection and clarity through myriad versions and changes. In fact, Tarot experienced periods of charlatanism, fortune-telling, and fakery; it has a long and associated with Gypsies and the Devil. At the same time it has also enjoyed consorting with hippies, occultists, and magicians. And now it is being increasingly used as an intentional tool of higher consciousness, used by psychologists and analysts, by spiritual counselors and human-potential readers, and most importantly, by large numbers of ordinary people sincerely wanting to deepen and improve their lives.

Interestingly, William Blake's works were widely considered to be madness, mysticism, mystery, and mediocrity, not only in his own time but long afterwards. It was not until the late 19th century that the poet William Butler Yeats began the process of deciphering Blake's texts and restoring them to public view. Of course, this is the same Yeats who was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, from whence came the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and hence modern Tarot. Now, in the 20th century, after being explored intellectually by countless scholars and mystically by many artists and poets, Blake has exploded into our modern consciousness as a master spokesman of the soul's journey.

And so we see that Tarot and William Blake have been on separate but parallel paths since they both appeared at the same time about 215 years ago. Now, in the William Blake Tarot, for the first time these two perfected systems are joined and deepened by each other's insights and formative structures. I designed this deck as a blessed marriage between two compassionate and imaginative spiritual entities, one being the genius of Tarot and the other being the genius of Blake.

What is especially pertinent about Blake for Tarot is his stature as a master symbolist. He created more than 2000 paintings and graphics, and wrote more words than Shakespeare. Throughout the 58 years his working life from the age of 12 in 1769 to his death at the age of 69 in 1827 he was consistently focused on developing and refining his own symbolic universe. As a result, his symbols and words are never haphazardly used nor isolated from an intentionally meaningful context. Speaking of his own paintings he said, "I entreat . . . that the Spectator will attend to the Hands & Feet, to the Lineaments of the Countenances; they are all descriptive of Character, & not a line is drawn without intention, & . . . not a grain of Sand or a Blade of Grass insignificant."

It is this quality of deeply meaningful and consistent use of symbols that made me recognize Blake as potentially the greatest Tarot artist of all time. Although the Tarot through the ages right up to the present day has attracted the skills of countless fine artists, and even some renowned artists such as Salvador Dali, none approach the stature of William Blake. Even though I have adapted and collaged Blake's designs to suit Tarot, they form an uncanny and near perfect fit because they are all from his own parallel, harmonious, and contemporaneous system of thought. Blake was not just a great artist and poet but also a profound spiritual thinker and psychological mythologist. What we therefore have in Blake is the compleat painter, scientist, musician, poet, philosopher, and mystic - he represents the perfection of all the Tarot suits combined. He not only gives us mythic characters in a spiritual and psychological context, he illustrates them and makes them speak. The facial expressions of his figures, the exact placement of their hands and feet, for example, whether the left foot is forward or the right hand upraised, together with every gesture and sign, the clothing or lack of it, the physical interactions with each other, everything about the figures and their surroundings is always symbolic and charged with invisible yet highly accessible meaning. Only Blake has this supreme degree of intentionality that invests and informs every aspect of his images and his thought. And therefore I have renewed the old symbols of William Blake for our modern age, and I believe that he may speak even more clearly to the future in its great New Age. "Children of the future Age, Reading this indignant page; Know that in a former time, Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime."

Ace of Poetry - Inspiration

In our growing materialistic quandary, Blake is a beacon of imagination, showing us how to transform our personal realities. Blake was perhaps the first person to foresee and warn us about the dilemmas that would arise for a future world that dedicated itself to technological and political goals instead of pursuing artistic and spiritual vision. He tried to warn us that by embracing Industry we would sacrifice Soul. Blake believed that exercising the Imagination is the invoking of God, and there is no other god than the human Imagination. In this sense, he was a pagan, and for him the Ten Commandments symbolized spiritual tyranny. (He said, "He has observ'd the Golden Rule, Til he's become the Golden Fool.") Yet Blake loved the Bible because it was filled with Imagination, and he made Jesus one of his symbols of Imagination. Blake envisioned the human body and psyche as a metaphor for the universe, ruled by eternal powers he called Zoas, who in humanity symbolize the parts of the body and psyche. As above, so below. Blake asserted the values of mercy and forgiveness of sin, against those of obedience, judgement, and punishment. Blake believed that Energy or life force is holy, and by extension, that sex is sacred and beautiful.

Blake urged and pleaded with us to discover and use our Divine Imaginations, to awaken the latent powers of god-like creativity within ourselves, by throwing off our "mind-forg'd manacles." He knew his mission perfectly well: "I rest not from my great task! To open the eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes Of man inwards into the worlds of thought." That is, to locate and expose the visionary promise in others and in himself. Blake teaches us to see the world symbolically so that we can discern the truth behind the seeming reality, which is this: we can reclaim our souls by recognizing that our bodies and senses are only material extensions of our vital spiritual essence. He maintained that by practicing the principles of the arts in our daily lives, we can heal and unite our divided psychological selves and thus break through into a vision of the exalted higher reality that he called Eternity. By way of example, despite his perennial poverty and lack of recognition, Blake was cited by his contemporaries as the happiest of men, who on his deathbed worked on his paintings, singing songs of praise and gratitude.

Here is an example of how the Blake Tarot works: I asked the cards what this audience needed to know about them, and randomly selected one card to suggest an answer. The card I drew was the Triumph Reason (which 'happens' to be the theme card illustrated on the cover of the book and the merchandising box). Numbered IV , this card depicts Urizen, Blake's mythic figure who symbolizes the reasoning Mind and corresponds to the Emperor in the traditional Tarot. Urizen kneels in his airy realm of sky, blocking the light of the Imaginative sun behind him, and reaches down out of dark clouds to assert his worldly control by wielding the calipers of his trademark compass. What does this card mean? First of all, its name literally pertains to giving us the "reason" behind the deck, which is to help us mentally understand ourselves and our world. Secondly, the card emphasizes one of Blake's primary messages, warning us that Rationality is the enemy of Imagination. Urizen's technology (which symbolizes our own fascination with technological cleverness) is powerful but devoid of spirit and heart. Blake asserted that revealing Error was the first step in casting it out; thus this card tells us that the Blake Tarot (of which this particular card is the lead or trademark image) can be a means for freeing our imaginations, in part by identifying what inhibits and threatens our imaginations: namely, the calculating, logical, scientific lord of the laboratory. Finally, I also interpret this card to mean that for Tarot to be accepted in the broader context of everyday life by millions of people, they will first need to understand in a "reasonable" way what Tarot really is, and why it works, and what it can do for us. Because we have been indoctrinated by rationality, we require a rational reason to believe in Tarot even as a counter-rational force.

Particularly in the last few decades, Tarot has grown explosively even in the face of skepticism and widespread belief that it was only a fad, or really a fraud, or actually an outright fiend. But more and more new decks keep appearing every year, and sales keep going up despite its own publishers' disbelief. Year after year, people keep saying that the Tarot boom is about to bust, that the market is oversaturated, and yet Tarot keeps expanding in delightfully unpredictable and outrageous fashion. As a result, many of us believe that Tarot has at long last arrived. However, I don't agree. What I believe is that Tarot is only now about to arrive; that what has happened so far, amazing as it is, is just the beginning. Tarot for the 21st Century will be a mass phenomenon and a household word as a new age embraces its old symbols.

As for William Blake, the acclaimed but shadowy genius who "discover'd the infinite in every thing," a new dawning continues. His 200-year-old wisdom has been retooled for the 21st Century, and I'm letting him have the last word:

Re-engrav'd Time after Time
Ever in their youthful prime,
My design unchang'd remains.
-- William Blake (1757 - 1827)
© Ed Buryn August 1997

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Article © 1997, by Ed Buryn. Used with permission.

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