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Tarot for Hard Times

Emma Burleigh considers the powerful archetypes within The Hanged Man and The Tower, and how they might help us navigate feelings and fears amidst a global pandemic.

Emma Burleigh is an award winning comics artist, painter and art teacher with a passion for watercolour.

Emma is working on a book for Liminal 11 called Soul Colour, out in 2021! Sign up to our newsletter for updates and stay tuned for more from Emma here on our blog.

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“Please give me some guidance for the months ahead…”

I’ve been contemplating a particular couple of Tarot cards since I drew them blind from a beautiful old ‘Marseille’ style pack, way back in early February. I was at a friend’s house and she’d unexpectedly unearthed the pack from somewhere and wanted to try them. I sat quietly, holding them in my hands for a while, before asking a question and drawing two cards. I actually don’t remember exactly what question I asked, but it was something like “Please give me some guidance for the months ahead.”

At that point, I don’t think the Covid-19 virus was uppermost in the consciousness of most people in the UK at all. I’m not sure I had even heard of it. It certainly wasn’t something I was imagining would affect my life in any way…

The cards I drew were The Hanged Man and The Tower. A pretty dark pair, as I commented in mild alarm to my friend! I’d asked for some guidance and here were the images I was offered! Life had been progressing along smoothly enough for me, and I probably wouldn’t have looked to the Tarot for advice at all if my friend hadn’t encouraged me in that moment. Now, presented with these archetypes, I felt a little challenged. However, I’ve been listening to the Tarot cards for over twenty years, ever since my friend Sally introduced me to them when we were students. That’s long enough to have learned that if they give me an image I don’t like, it doesn’t mean I should just reject it.

emma burleigh tarot watercolour
Reflecting on The Tower (image from Emma’s journal)

The Collective Unconscious

How does the Tarot work? The founder of archetypal psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, developed a theory of the ‘collective unconscious’, a universal psychic soup teeming with archetypal images. This is the foundation on which the tarot draws. Jung also wrote about ‘synchronicity’ where elements with no apparent connection, for example a person and an image, would come together in that moment to form a pattern that had meaning. He called it ‘a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity’. I’m not sure that the cards can predict the future (and I’m not sure the future is fixed), but I do think they can provide a mirror to help me understand myself or my situation more deeply.

Tarot can provide a mirror to help me understand myself or my situation more deeply.

I wasn’t immediately sure what meaning the Tarot was trying to share with me this time. Sometimes I have had an incomprehensible dream, written it down on waking, and forgotten all about it. Occasionally, I’ve flicked through my old dream journals sometime later and been stunned to see how prescient and clear the message of that same dream is to me with hindsight: How could I not have understood what a brilliant metaphor that dream-image was for whatever had been going on inside me during that phase in my life?!

So, back in February, I mused on those images of The Hanged Man and The Tower, wondering if their significance would become clearer over time. The message of The Hanged Man seemed to be to wait, not to rush to make any big decisions, and to ‘keep my ear close to the ground’. I felt that The Tower spoke to me of letting go of old patterns of behaviour, and was urging me to release a childhood habit of being a ‘good girl’ that can cause me to keep my rage stored up inside. It suggested I open myself up to divine intervention, even if it comes as a lightning strike of ‘tough love’ that could feel shattering to my ego.

Using the Tarot in a Global Pandemic

What’s striking to me now, in the context of the global pandemic we find ourselves living through, is that these cards also seem to be very apposite archetypes for our current time. Individually, many of us may be experiencing the shattering of our personal ‘towers’, while collectively the towers of our culture, economy and way of life have been struck – not by lightning of course – but by a virus. Like The Hanged Man, many of us may be finding ourselves in a state of suspension, ‘left hanging’ in a state of uncertainty, as we gaze at a world turned upside down.

What do the cards have to say about our current situation? I’d like to offer my own thoughts on these two cards. Just like dream images, the cards cannot really be nailed down to any one person’s interpretation, and you will no doubt have your own differing insights and perspectives to bring. I share my ideas here as a way to begin a contemplation that you could continue alone or with friends. No doubt you will find fresh ways to understand our current time through the lenses of these cards that I have not even considered. I’d love to hear them!

emma burleigh tarot watercolour
The higher power of nature strikes down our human-made structures (image from Emma’s journal)

The Tower

At first I think of a ‘Control Tower’ and the values and systems that govern our world and our way of life. Then I remember the telecoms tower on the hill near my home in Bristol, which causes me to consider the dominant messages that are broadcast to us every day. I ponder the expression ‘ivory tower’, used to describe the psychic dwelling place of a person who has lost touch with reality. He or she has become ungrounded and perhaps unable to relate to or care about the ‘little people’. As I look more closely at the card, I see it shows us a tower that is dysfunctional; it has no door and just three tiny windows. It suggests a narrow-minded, ‘towering’ attitude that has sealed itself off from the earth and takes in no fresh influences. The tower wears a crown: it believes itself to be King. However, a higher power, the power of nature, has struck down this crown with a bolt of lightning. (Is it pushing things too far to say that this tower’s crown has been trumped by a more powerful ‘corona’?).

The Tower helps us see the conceit of imagining humanity can thrive, and even avoid death, by diminishing the earth that we are part of.

Collectively we’ve seen the ‘striking down’ of some ‘towering’ assumptions, attitudes and habits that have been quite astounding. The idea that the economy must be kept going at all costs has crumbled as the vast majority of us have quickly agreed that people matter more than profit. To me it’s extraordinary that many of the world’s powers-that-be temporarily cancelled capitalism, and that our admiration for celebrities and super-rich businessmen has been displaced in the collective psyche with Eros for nurses, carers and refuse collectors. Here in the UK, our national health service (NHS), which voters had allowed to succumb to a decade of ‘austerity’ politics, now finds itself experiencing something of an elevation to divine status in the national story. Meanwhile, grass-roots efforts to care for the vulnerable have flourished when certain political leaders at the top have floundered – out of touch and lost in their ivory-tower ideologies.

The lightning itself is interesting to consider. It’s a natural phenomenon with spiritual significance. The Greek god Zeus destroyed Asklepios with a bolt of lightning because he feared the man was such a great doctor he might make all men immortal. Later, Zeus had a change of heart and elevated him to the status of a god: the God of Medicine. The first part of the story hints at human hubris in exerting a sociopathic level of control over the natural world in the pursuit of ‘progress’ for humanity, a pursuit that has led to the disruption of the entire eco-system, the death of 60% of wild animals and 75% of insects in just one human generation, and has inadvertently created conditions in which viruses can prosper. It points at the conceit of imagining humanity can thrive, and even avoid death, by diminishing the earth that we are part of.

The second part of the story says something about healing, and the restoration of the wounded healer. Asklepios has learned his lesson and moved into balance with the universe, so now he can use his skills for true healing. What might real healing, when the lightning storm is over, look like for our world?

The figures in the Tower card are falling: many of us can relate to a feeling of falling through thin air in recent weeks. Disoriented, exposed and vulnerable, we may have lost our livelihoods, our loved ones, our security, our routine, our purpose. Yet the card shows us that the figures themselves are not harmed and will eventually land on fertile earth. Like seeds, they will be able to put down new roots. I wonder what will take root in the soil as we fire up our economy and restart our lives again?

emma burleigh tarot watercolour
The Star sends a message of hope (image from Emma’s journal)

The tarot offers a journey of development: if we are wise, we’ll move towards the next card in the pack, The Star, which speaks of hope. We’ll rebuild our tower with bigger windows and a door this time – or perhaps we’ll decide to build a community centre instead, with solar panels! Collectively, there’s some hope that we’ll opt for a more socially just economy and a Green new deal, and individually we may well adopt some healthier lifestyle habits.

The Hanged Man

emma burleigh tarot watercolour
The Hanged Man asks us to see the world from a new perspective (image from Emma’s journal)

The Hanged Man tells me to listen to the earth: he dangles upside down but seems comfortable enough, with his head submerged half below ground. It strikes me that many people have been experiencing a closer connection with the nature recently. Here in the UK we’ve been valuing our daily walks, and even in countries under stricter lockdowns, people have been hearing birdsong reverberating through empty city streets and watching the wildlife move in. A London friend spotted a woodpecker in her backyard for the first time, while in Bristol a heron has begun visiting our urban garden.

Farm animals packed into cramped cages and human encroachment into the habitats of wildlife create two of the conditions in which viruses are known to thrive and then spread to humans

Collectively, listening to the earth strikes me as the most healing and positive change we could make going forward into the future. Farm animals packed into cramped cages and human encroachment into the habitats of wildlife create two of the conditions in which viruses are known to thrive and then spread to humans. Meanwhile climate change has become no less urgent and still awaits our attention when we rebuild our economies. We’ve proved to ourselves we can cooperate and make rapid changes when we all agree that it’s deeply important. What could be achieved if we all agreed to make the changes needed for the future health of humanity and the environment? 

The Hanged Man speaks of sacrifice. Many of us have had to sacrifice enormous amounts to help keep each other safe: we may have sacrificed freedom, income, livelihood, social life, our own health, our time, and more. All of those things we’ll be rightly desperate to get back as soon as we can, but are there other, less vital things, that we could permanently let go of in order to gain new benefits? Could the convenience of driving a car around the city centre, for example, be sacrificed in order to breathe the cleaner air we’ve recently been enjoying under lockdown?

The Hanged Man is a card of new perspectives: hanging upside down he asks us to perceive the world a different way. The old order of things has been turned upside down, at least for now. We’re being asked to re-evaluate what’s important, and what we really cherish. Individually we may have realised we can make changes in our lives we didn’t imagine were possible before lockdown. We may find that the things we miss are not the things we would have expected to miss. Collectively we’ve upturned our views about what really matters. To give an example, in the UK, after many years of voters choosing ‘austerity politics’ and the resulting erosion of support systems for the most vulnerable in society, a recent YouGov poll shows over two thirds of the British people would prefer the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth going forward into the future.

The Hanged Man tells me that you can’t control everything all of the time, and that there’s no point struggling with reality

Most of all, to me personally, The Hanged Man urges me to stay steady. He tells me to try to become comfortable with ‘just hanging in there’; he says to watch and wait, and not to leap to conclusions prematurely. He shows me that you can’t control everything all of the time, and that there’s no point struggling with reality. The more he struggles, the more wildly he’ll swing. The more he accepts, the stiller he becomes. I know his condition is not permanent, and that this will pass.

The Tarot reflects the journey of life which is ever-changing, and guides the evolution of the soul towards what Jung called ‘individuation’. Like everyone, I have my own piece of uncertainty to hold right now, with big questions hanging in the air about the future of my work. For now, the Tarot tells me the wisest thing to do is to be still and to consider the world from this unusual perspective. The Hanged Man guides us all to bide our time until we are released from the ropes that have strung us upside down in this very odd position.

Finding your own meanings

I hope my thoughts have been helpful as starting points, or as counterpoints, for your own responses.

Of course, it could be that these two cards I’ve discussed don’t speak to you at all right now and that you need a different kind of solace and guidance. If so, I recommend sitting with the cards and then asking for what you need; is it comfort, counsel, or insight? Draw a card, or two, or lay out a whole spread. Trust that the images you need will come to you. Spend time with them, contemplate them, and even draw or paint them. Let them support you through this challenging time.

I wish you the best with your tarot explorations. May they guide you along your life journey.

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Find Emma Burlegh at www.emmaburleigh.com

Watch this space for my forthcoming full-length book, Soul Colour (a 10-week watercolour course for mindfulness and creativity), which will be published by Liminal 11 in 2021. Sign up to the Liminal 11 newsletter for updates.

More from Emma:

Free Exercises: Watercolour for Mindfulness and Self-Care

Get the mini course: Space, A Mindful Art Guide from Emma’s Etsy shop.

Tarot Spreads to Try:

The Luna Sol Tarot Spread

The Four Powers Tarot Spread

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