Updated: May 8, 2020
Content Warning: discussions of grief, illness, and death.
The Shadow of the Tarot
Existing in the world in March 2020 means being sensitively tuned to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 global pandemic. A new disease that unexpectedly spilled over from animals to humans, and now is burning through dozens of countries on every continent has pushed on our social, cultural, and political structures in unexpected ways. International travel has crawled to a standstill; public gatherings are being cancelled or outright banned; we have stopped engaging in our simplest social rituals, from handshaking to attending religious service. The very people, places, and habits that usually bring us comfort during times of crisis are the very things that we must avoid in order to prevent greater loss of life and sickness. When rising death tolls, marshal law updates, and doomsday soothsaying are delivered to the palm of your hand 24/7, it can feel as though our souls have been spiked over a roaring fire.
This is not a post about COVID-19, specifically. I'm not here to sell you snake oil to heal your body or protect your home. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are a great resource for accurate public health information, and you may be able to find mutual aid funds in your state with economic and political resources (Vermont and Washington State have great sites already). There are a few universal actions you can take to help slow the spread of the virus:
Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water
Stay home if you feel sick
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your elbow
These timeless preventative measures can go a long way in protecting your physical health, and that of the people around you. Of course, there is still the matter of caring for an unquiet heart during turbulent times. There are as many ways to cope with an unprecedented crisis as their are people under the sun, and each method for carving out peace is valid and understandable for you. If your coping is causing you additional harm, in one way or another, take this as a sign to reach out for some professional help to identify other ways to soothe your hurting soul.
Personally, I take comfort from crawling right into the dark places of the world and peering into monsters' faces, trying to name them. This need to see and name is a part of binding - capturing a negative essence into a shape or name is the first step in banishing it. To clearly see a thing is a form of power, which is why Seers are so revered. Tarot helps us access the power of the Seer, revealing situations that were previously hidden, clearing mental and spiritual fog. Often, tarot readings feel like bringing a bright lantern to a dark cave - warm, inviting, and ultimately comforting. Tarot, though, is not an inherently kind tool. Tarot is a mirror. It shows us ourselves and our world, without embellishment. For every bright light cast by a tarot card, there is a deep shadow that follows just behind.
For every bright light cast by a tarot card, there is a deep shadow that follows just behind.
The traditional tarot deck posits that an essential part of growth is the pain of loss, the grief of tragedy. From the figures of Death and the Tower in the major arcana, to basically the entire Swords suite, the Fool's Journey takes one deep into the shadow of the psyche. The hope of the Star is all the sweeter because it is preceded in the major arcana by the Devil, the Hanged Man, Death, and the Tower - four cards that force us to confront the lies we tell ourselves, our lack of action, the things that no longer serve us, and our lack of control over the changing world. Ouch. The 5's of each suite in the minor arcana remind us that the hope and energy of the first four cards can easily be toppled by loss and destruction, that nothing is a sure bet. When these dark cards appear in a reading, it can be
As tarot evolves and is reimagined in a more radical, feminist lens, this thesis changes from "you must undergo tragedy to grow" to the more nuanced and humane "change is uncomfortable but critical". Regardless of whether we literally set out on a quest to experience the world, or we journey inwards to the wilds of our unconscious, it is very likely that we will encounter at least a few monsters on the path. It is even more likely that those monsters will resemble us, just a little. Tarot offers us a way to make sense of the dark landscape before us, a solid place to plant our feet and breathe.
To benefit from the wisdom in these dark cards, though, we must be willing to go to the shadowy places, extinguish our torch, and open our eyes.
3 Dark Goddesses for a Pandemic
Most tarot readers, when pressed, will confess that they own anywhere from a dozen to over 300 tarot decks (that's not an exaggeration; Melissa Cynova has a beautiful collection). I personally use between 2 and 7 decks each month, selecting different sets based upon their unique personalities. The Paulina Cassidy Tarot is great for relationships and whimsical topics, while the Modern Witch is my everyday go-to. But there is one deck I routinely pick up when the I feel the shadows pressing in, The Dark Goddess Tarot created by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. Each card depicts a goddess from cultures around the world who reign over the rich and deep aspects of life (death, sex, war, magic, and on). The accompanying guidebook is a veritable encyclopedia of magic's dark feminine history.
In readings, this deck packs a punch. The goddesses of the Dark Goddess tarot will not sugar coat the situation. They will not give you empty platitudes of "everything will be alright". They know that everything, most likely, will not be alright. What they are willing to give you is the truth, sharp and lethal, and a reminder that you were cast in their fierce and terrible image. When the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Kentucky, my home state, and the global tragedy finally washed up at my door, I sought out 3 goddesses from Lorenzi-Prince's deck that I knew would guide me in the weeks ahead.
What they are willing to give you is the truth, sharp and lethal, and a reminder that you were cast in their fierce and terrible image.
Allow me to introduce you to them:
Tlazōlteōtl (Corruption) pronounced [tɬaʔsoɬˈtéo:tɬ])
Replacing the traditional Devil card, Tlazōlteōtl is the Aztec goddess of filth and purification, a four-fold goddess who encompasses a complex identity. When Tlazōlteōtl marks a person, she causes them to break out in symptoms of disease from convulsions to open sores. Yet, she also forgives sin and protects supplicants from curses. I am most drawn to Tlazōlteōtl's role as Sin-Eater. She takes her followers' sins into her own body, absolving them, and becoming polluted herself. It is a selfless act, reflected across religions (Jesus of Nazareth is a Sin-Eater) and throughout history (Sin-Eaters could be hired in Wales, to ritually eat the sins of dead loved ones).
We may not pay them sixpence to eat a loaf of bread over dear aunt Sally's corpse anymore, but Sin-Eaters still walk among us in 2020. As the news has raged about the spread of COVID-19 and the ways that social distancing impacts society, it has become abundantly clear that there are many more people than we realize who are required to sacrifice their own bodily integrity for our well-being. Early news stories from China pointed out the great risk to healthcare workers who are continually exposed to the virus, but it is now apparent that grocery store employees, daycare workers, pharmacy cashiers, and bus drivers, among so many others, are also being forced to take on the very physical reality of our poor public health and political infrastructure in order to protect the rest of us.
What do you call a selfless sacrifice, performed by unwilling parties who have no other options? I call it inhumane. What would Tlazōlteōtl make of this mockery of her great gift? The discomfort we feel in answering these questions lets us know that we are firmly in the tarot's shadow.
Baba Yaga (Hermit)
I can already tell you what the phrase of 2020 will be - social distancing. From working remotely, to canceling large events, to isolating yourself from your partners in your own home, we are being asked to flatten the curve by reducing the number of our social contacts on a daily basis. In some cases, people are quarantining themselves if they believe they have been exposed, or if they have a high risk of complications should they contract COVID-19. We are collectively turning inward, and the Hermit is here to help us see the light in this solitary existence.
Baba Yaga is a good, old-fashioned witch. A figure from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is generally depicted as an old woman, living deep in the woods in her little hut that walks around on chicken legs. You will not be able to find her home without being led by a doll (yikes) or a magical thread, but if you do find her, you'll have to prove your integrity and virtue by completing an actually impossible task by dawn the next day or she'll kill you. Baba Yaga takes social distancing to the next level.
The Hermit of the major arcana invites us to retreat into solitude to seek a higher form of wisdom. She is the master on the mountain top, filled with ancient knowledge and only sharing it with the truly worthy, who seek her out. Baba Yaga as Hermit adds that the journey for knowledge is not a straight line. Sure, you may set out to write the next great American novel from the comfort of your couch while self-quarantine. But just like Baba Yaga takes a hero from her journey to spend 8 hours sorting lentils by hand in the dark (which you really don't understand how that is going to help you slay a dragon), you may find yourself distracted in your home office by one of a hundred different things. Allow yourself to run down these rabbit holes. Baba Yaga rewards those who complete her inane tasks with gifts to help them on their journeys (go ahead and edit Wikipedia pages or get lost on a Reddit thread from 7 years ago, you never know if you'll stumble upon the next great space-punk novel idea there).
After all, why do we live in a world where we expect people living in a global health crisis, a constant state of emergency to still...get those expense statements in on time? Or write a new symphony? Why do you need to constantly produce something, even when the world has shut down around you? Or better question yet, why does your employer expect you to keep producing value for them while we are fighting to keep more people from dying? Baba Yaga would laugh in the face of someone who came to her hut looking for a way to make oodles of money in a crisis - and then she would chuck them in her stove.
Another swap for the traditional major arcana, this time Kali the Destroyer replacing The Tower. Kali is the Hindu goddess of the End of Time. She is one of the fiercest goddesses, created to defeat a demon army and save the world, she becomes enraptured by the blood lust of her vengeance and dances until worlds fall under her feet. The essence of the Tower is the destruction of every belief, every norm, every piece of normalcy you felt you had a grasp on in your life. Kali is the personification of this essence, made of fire and death and the void between the stars, she is the End of Everything.
Personally, that energy is highly relatable on March 17th, 2020. When I sought Kali in the Dark Goddess Tarot, I was thinking about the long-term ramifications of extended isolation and quarantine practices o the world. Many people are deeply concerned with the large-scale economic ramifications of shutting down big industries like airlines for long periods of time. You probably know someone who is worried about their personal finances during the outbreak, whether because they cannot work and are not being compensated, or their business model depends on public gatherings. In many cases, especially for freelancers, artists, and very small businesses, they will likely close their doors to never reopen them again. For many of these people, hunger, homelessness, and worse will likely result. It is likely that we will emerge from one global health crisis to immediately launch into an even deeper global housing crisis.
The more I meditated on Kali's destruction in the wake of COVID-19, the more I also saw the social and cultural destruction that will follow. Humans are a resilient bunch, but how long will it be before we are shaking hands confidently, kissing new dates, packed into concert halls? What do we lose when the very idea of gathering is enough to inflame anyone's anxiety? In the midst of working to slow the spread of a virus, have we unknowingly showed just how easy it is to coral us into our homes, sorted into high and low risk, dangerous and not? Kali's body carries the seeds of the new world that will arise after she rips apart the old. Will the world that comes after COVID-19 be a place we want to, that we can, live in?
When we are willing to travel into the shadow realms to see the source of pain and harm, we are often met by these 3 dark goddesses and more. They are not figures of comfort, but rather patrons of the difficult road itself. I hope by exploring the work of Tlazolteotl, Baba Yaga, and Kali, you have an opportunity explore the fears and monsters lurking in your own heart during these difficult days. I cannot offer you any balmy parting words - I am scared, too. In my fear, though, I feel the foundation of my humanity. I am scared for unnecessary loss of life, for suffering. I am scared that the powerful will take advantage of the powerless. I am scared that the spark of joy will be even harder to strike each day. In fearing, I am acutely aware of what I truly value in this world. From beneath the umbra of death, illusion disappears and we clearly see who has ill-intentions, who would sacrifice us for their own gain, who the bad actors are.
From the shadow of the tarot, we can begin to chart a course forward.
Alex is the founder and primary spiritual navigator for Dead Reckoning Tarot. She has been working with tarot cards since she was an anxious and overeager teen, and now as an anxious and overeager adult enjoys finding ways to infuse the every day world with magic. You can also find Alex writing book reviews and short stories at A Thousand Lives when she isn't slinging cards or chasing her miniature dachshund around the house.