Jake Arthur’s Tarot-inspired poetry collection. Image design: Claire Mabey.
Jake Arthur’s Tarot-inspired poetry collection. Image design: Claire Mabey.

BooksJune 29, 2024

‘Celtic Cross, anyone?’: Jake Arthur on a tarot-inspired poetry collection

Jake Arthur’s Tarot-inspired poetry collection. Image design: Claire Mabey.
Jake Arthur’s Tarot-inspired poetry collection. Image design: Claire Mabey.

Jake Arthur explains why his latest poetry collection was inspired by the Pamela Coleman-Smith illustrations on the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

Done well, a Tarot reading, like all rituals, creates its own aura. Like walking off a busy street in a European city into the quiet and cool of a church, a reading is one of those times when you naturally go quiet, when you get serious, because there is this atmosphere of heightened significance, of higher mysteries. 

I first encountered Tarot when I was studying for my PhD in the UK. I had a friend who, whenever it reached about 1am and we were still at her house in Oxford, would reach for her goblet of red wine and get mystic. 

Dinners at hers were elaborate. As an entrée she always served gold-dusted quail eggs with dipping salts. I’d never had a quail egg in my life; I didn’t even know if you had to shell it. Even the food was a kind of ritual with her.

Her parties ended one of two ways. The first had us all putting on our jackets and gathering around a crucible in her garden for a therapeutic burning. On scraps of paper we would name bad boyfriends, bad vibes or bad feedback from our thesis supervisors, and then toss them in. We’d hold hands and she’d say some words and reduce them, and what they represented, to ashes with her lighter. 

Either that, or she’d get out the Tarot cards. Celtic Cross, anyone?

You’d be forgiven for assuming Tarot is just another of those vaguely “Eastern” fads, like mood rings or aura cleansing, that the White West is desperate to empty wallets for. It’s true that someone at least is making bank from the minor industry Tarot has become, with custom decks and accompanying books promising the cards will guide you to financial success, tantric sex, personal enlightenment and, of course, romantic love. 

But Tarot’s origin is European. The face cards we associate with Tarot – the ones with names like Death, the Hanged Man, and the Wheel of Fortune – are trump cards, or tarocchi in the Italian, used in a card game popular in the Renaissance in Europe. The suits, cups, swords, wands and pentacles are equivalents of our more garden variety spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. 

It was only in the 19th century that these alternate suits and face cards, long absent in Western Europe, re-entered circulation. By this time they had become unfamiliar enough – mysterious enough – to be used for cartomancy: fortune telling with cards. Their enigmatic names and designs contributed to a sense that there was something occult about these cards.

It’s time to put my own cards on the table. I’ve written a poetry collection called Tarot, where each poem offers a snippet of a different character’s life inspired by the design or meaning of a specific card. And yet I’ve just spent three paragraphs demystifying Tarot. Why am I killing my own mystique?

Three of the Rider-Waite cards designed by Pamela Coleman-Smith.

Because what fascinates me about the history of Tarot is that it shows us how things can become mystified. Our civilisation is like a very bright light: we are obsessed with illuminating everything; we seem to hate shadows. But I think we still feel a deep, unspoken pull to the strange and fantastic – and Tarot is a symptom of that.

The Industrial Revolution substituted machines for the labour of human hands just as, ironically, medicine taxonomised our bodies into machines that could malfunction and need repair. The light of science and industry drove back the borders of the unknown. But even as this was happening, the inverse was true in popular culture, which was turning to folk traditions, to exotica from abroad, and to the gothic.

It was as if the loss of mystery in one part of life meant it had to be supplemented from elsewhere — as if mystery was something people needed, as if it was essential.

A normal card game became mystified, transformed into a ceremony with a whole host of new trappings: gloomy rooms, rich fabrics, with a Mediterranean beauty or crone leaning over a table, first reading your palm in the candlelight before turning to the Tarot. The designs on these cards are so strange and otherworldly, that it seems like they must know something we don’t. They seem to come from a deep past. Why wouldn’t they have wisdom to share?

When my friend did her reading for me, she chose the Celtic Cross: an intricate 10-card “spread” representing not only what’s ahead and what’s in the present, but your past, your hopes and fears, the root of your problem and the forces preventing you overcoming them, as well as the “outcome”: the answer to the question you ask the fortune-teller.

The first card placed in the Celtic Cross represents the querent: the person asking the question. I was dealt the Hermit, a figure cloaked in drab colours who holds a walking stick in one hand and a lantern lifted in the other. The last card placed is the outcome card, and mine was the Two of Swords. The card shows a blindfolded woman, dressed in white, her crossed arms holding huge swords. 

My friend told me the two swords symbolised the choice before me, the two paths my life could take. She told me those paths were perfectly balanced in my mind. I was the Hermit, peering with his lantern, trying to see through the dark. I was over-cautious; I distrusted the evidence of my senses; I distrusted my gut. I was at risk of self-deception. And from these coordinates my destination was stalemate, inertia. Like the blindfolded woman, I held two futures in my hands and looked at neither of them.

I’d sought guidance, but instead had my predicament thrown back at me. The Tarot refused to answer my question and called me myopic, twice. 

“Top-up?” My friend asked brightly, swirling and almost spilling her half-charged glass.

What we need isn’t always an answer – sometimes it’s just a moment to frame the question.

Does it matter if Tarot is what it says it is – if its origin is really occult or not – if the ritual that we’ve made around it helps us to be open to ourselves and to the possibility that we need a helping hand, a steer in rough waters? Doesn’t it matter, that we might have a fortune waiting for us, if only we could tell it to ourselves?

or The Star

Lithe leveret!
More arms than two
IN your mother’s fore
Swaddled naked, in fat
& soft bones, hard gazing
At the swish-swash colours
Forming you for you.

It’s a lot.

All’s new under the sun
& the sun itself is but a kitten
Held by neck in the teeth
Of a stray starry dam.
I am a kind of monkey
& I’m your daddy,

Tarot by Jake Arthur ($25, Te Herenga Waka University Press) is available from Unity Books.

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