Tarot of the Ages of Humanity

Before we start:

I am a hobbyist designer of Tarot and Tarot-like decks.  It’s a good time.  Playing with semiotics is fun. 

Unfortunately, throwing ideas around — even in a systematized way — turns out to be a whole lot easier than actually doing complete art writeups.  And even doing a full suite of complete art writeups is much, much, much easier than causing an actual deck to come into existence.  Especially if you’re not any kind of visual artist yourself, which I am definitely not. 

The upshot is that I come up with lots of deck concepts, and end up throwing almost all of them away, because I know that I will never really want to put in in the time/energy/money to do anything real with them.  Which feels like a colossal waste. 

So I’m trying something new.  This deck concept is hereby released, with no strings attached, into public ownership.  If you like it, feel free to do whatever you want with it. 

…maybe someone who isn’t me will see fit to do something cool. 

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The Tarot of the Ages of Humanity is a 36-card oracle deck, divided into six suits of six cards each.  Fundamentally, it’s just about six thematic concepts, and the symbols and resonances that you get when you recombine and explore them.

“Ages of Humanity,” as used here, refers not to the stages of an individual life — at least, not directly, not in the Shakespearean sense — but rather to the stages of history.

The basic idea is that you can sketch the development of civilization  as taking place through six thematically-distinct paradigms.  Which are cyclical, if you believe that new vitality arises from decay and collapse.  (This is not to say that these paradigms can be precisely mapped onto specific periods of history as a whole, or onto specific periods of the history of any given society.  They really can’t, as you’ll see.  But…they’re all recognizable, and they cohere conceptually, and our perception of the world flows very naturally from one into the next.  They make a story that very much feels like the grand story of the world, even if it’s hard to make the details fit.)

Each paradigm creates its own environment, which fosters and encourages a different way-of-being.  The Defining Human of each paradigm is a different sort of person.

All of this makes for potent symbolism, because — guess what? — none of those paradigms ever ceases to be relevant.  Wherever civilization happens to be at a given moment, the archetypes of past and future will still serve to define our lives and our psychology.  So a Tarot card saying “think about this paradigm” or “think about that paradigm” has power.

Let’s spell all of this out, briefly, for illustrative purposes:

The Red Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Beast, is about natural struggle.  It corresponds to the hunter-gatherer phase of civilization, where the stories are primarily concerned with meeting basic needs and satisfying immediate desires.  (This is not really about privation, whether physical or intellectual or spiritual; the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has a lot going for it, in terms of satisfying the core values of the human psyche, that no other paradigm can match.)  Encountering the Red Suit paradigm is a reminder that on some fundamental level you are still basically an animal in the wild, just like everyone else around you, and that the world is pretty much a jungle.  The basic aesthetic is tribal and primitive, with lots of animal skins and so forth. 

The Orange Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Cultivator, is about natural mastery.  It corresponds to the agricultural phase of civilization, where the stories are primarily concerned with controlling the environment through diligent work and hard-won practical wisdom.  Encountering the Orange Suit paradigm is a reminder that effort yields reward, that technical domain knowledge matters, that community is a defense against chaos, and that traditions have worth.  The basic aesthetic is “rustic farming village” — I can’t help imagining it as basically English, y’know, the sort of setting where you find maypoles.

The Yellow Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Hero, is about social struggle.  It corresponds to the classical phase of civilization, where the stories are primarily concerned with the acquisition of power and glory through conflict.  (The basic scenario here is “fighting for a cause” — to a modern conception, this will usually be an ideological cause, although the antecedent archetypes hearken back to causes like “the greatness of King Such-and-such.”)  Encountering the Yellow Suit paradigm is a reminder that some things are worth risk and difficulty, that the world is full of potential allies and enemies, and that there is merit in valor and other forms of active virtue.  The basic aesthetic is an Near Eastern melange, mostly Persian, but with Arabian and Egyptian and Hellenistic elements…something that can communicate, non-specifically, “the ancient days when kings were always fighting each other.”   

The Green Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Ruler, is about social mastery.  It corresponds to the imperial/feudal phase of civilization,  where the stories are primarily concerned with the maintenance and exaltation of lasting ideals.   (And, especially, about the instantiation of those ideals in grand institutions: State and Church.)  Encountering the Green Suit paradigm is a reminder that there is great power for goodness in norms and rules, that there is great responsibility both in being an authority and in being a subordinate, and that salvation-of-spirit (whatever that is) can be found through appeal to a higher power (whatever that is).  The basic aesthetic is straight-up High Gothic Medieval. 

The Blue Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Sage, is about conceptual struggle.  It corresponds to the scientific/exploratory phase of civilization, where the stories are primarily concerned with pushing back the boundaries of ignorance.  Encountering the Blue Suit paradigm is a reminder that knowledge is built on evidence, that there is understanding in abstraction and quantification, that truth is often counterintuitive, and that the new can be better and bolder than the old.  The basic aesthetic is somewhere in the neighborhood of Renaissance Florentine. 

The Violet Suit, which centers on the figure of Human-as-Icon, is about conceptual mastery.  it corresponds to the decadent phase of civilization, where the stories are primarily concerned with extracting meaning from life — finding engagement with the world-as-a-whole (and pushing back against nihilistic ennui) through refined emotion and symbolic definition.  Encountering the Violet Suit paradigm is a reminder that beauty and purpose are human creations, that life must be made worth the living, and that even the greatest knowledge and the greatest power will die if they are empty at heart.  The basic aesthetic is Belle Époque Parisian, more or less.

And then the decadence of the Violet Suit, after a brief interregnum of civilization-smashing apocalypse, fades back into the simple bright vigor of the Red Suit.

(You can even set these up in a color-wheel, reflecting a very-notional Cycle of Ages, with the opposed pairs of Red/Green, Orange/Blue, and Yellow/Violet manifesting the greatest conceptual tension.  Possibly that would make for a good back-of-the-card design.)

Of course, it’s not quite that simple.  The whole cycle exists within each individual paradigm, right?  Wherever and whenever you are: there will always be Red Suit emotional immediacy, Orange Suit pragmatic worldliness, Yellow Suit active contention, and so on.  Every world has beasts and cultivators, heroes and rulers, sages and icons.  But all those things are shaped and defined by their environment.  Red-ness looks different in a Red world than it does in a Green world.  The symbols multiply.

And all those multiplied symbols are relevant, because the whole cycle exists within each individual paradigm, recursively.  So when we look out at the world in which we live — whatever paradigm seems, from one vantage point, to predominate — we will in fact encounter all six paradigms.  And within each of those we’ll encounter all six paradigms.  And within each of those…  The meanings, and correspondences, grow exponentially.

But six-by-six is enough for most everyday contemplative, and divinatory, purposes.

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The actual card list looks something like this:

RED SUIT

The Red Beast:  The Dragon.  An elemental force of savage instinct.  The drive to slake one’s lusts, and give vent to one’s urges, with no thought for anything beyond the moment.  A pure prime archetype.

The Red Cultivator:  The Forager.   A manifestation of hard work and skill within the uncompromising world of the real.  Someone who does what must be done, and learns what must be learned, in order to make it through the day.

The Red Hero:  The Hunter.  A brave risk-taker who struggles against the dangers of the wild, for nothing more than the hope of food for the morrow…and for the chance to awe tribe, and self, with bold cunning…and perhaps for the simple joy of pitting himself or herself against the world.  

The Red Ruler:  The Chieftain.  A leader of men and women, hard but just and caring, whose commands guide them through a world filled with peril.  Someone who holds onto his or her power through sheer strength, determination, and charisma alone.

The Red Sage:  The Shaman. A living channel for the numinous hidden wisdom of the world.  Someone who opens up his or her spirit to channel the words of lets higher powers.  Someone whose life is given to understanding, and mastering, a reality that cannot be understood. 

The Red Icon:  The Dancer.  A dweller in artless wordless ecstasy, a font of beauty and joy.  Someone who can stand in for all the sweaty primal pleasures that make even the most unexamined life worth living.

ORANGE SUIT

The Orange Beast:  The Bull.  An elemental force of directed persistence.  The drive to keep pulling at the plow, to put in the work that must be done, come what may. 

The Orange Cultivator:  The Planter.  One who labors now for a yield later, who is willing to care for the future.  Someone who trusts in his technique.  Someone who trusts in the world to continue making sense.  A force of fertility, happiness, and responsibility.  A pure prime archetype.

The Orange Hero:  The Sentinel. A stalwart defender who puts himself or herself on the line for a community.  Someone who expects danger, and prepares, without wishing to seek it.  Someone determined to keep home and family safe.  

The Orange Ruler:  The Patriarch.  A leader of an intimate, communitarian group.  A master of the world in which he lives, well-versed in tradition and long-hallowed custom, who relies on his wisdom to guide his people through hardships. 

The Orange Sage:  The Witch.  A wielder of mysterious arts, who can offer practical solutions to practical problems.  Someone set apart from the mainstream community by dint of an unusual specialization. 

The Orange Icon:  The Harvest Maiden. A living emblem of contentment, wealth, and fecundity.  Someone who can stand in for well-earned simple joys, for the blessings of family, and for the rewards of labor. 

YELLOW SUIT

The Yellow Beast:  The Lion. An elemental force of glory and victory.  The drive to stand dominant over foes, to achieve legend, to carve one’s name into the firmament of history. 

The Yellow Cultivator:  The Scribe.  A skillful, dedicated soul who works hard for the sake of a worldly cause.  Someone who tells, records, or amplifies the story of a thing in which he or she believes.  

The Yellow Hero:  The Conqueror.  A daring warrior and achiever, especially one who contends with enemies, whose valor advances some greater agenda.  An active player in the drama of the world.  A pure prime archetype. 

The Yellow Ruler:  The Vizier.  A politician — which is to say, a manipulator of men and women– for whom rules and commands are a system that must be employed to achieve a purpose.  An administrator or commander seeking to guide a collective towards a goal.    

The Yellow Sage:  The Adviser.  A teacher, strategist, or specialist who lends his or her mind to a greater endeavor in hopes of helping it transcend its own limits.  Someone whose mastery, or discovery, of the world’s secrets is used to achieve a concrete ambition.    

The Yellow Icon:  The Concubine.  A human prize, who embodies desirability and success and splendor.  Someone who can stand in for the joys of basking in greatness.   

GREEN SUIT

The Green Beast:  The Griffon.  An elemental force of lawfulness, stability, and sanctity.  The drive towards reverence and exaltation.  The power to grasp eternity.   

The Green Cultivator: The Monastic. A contemplative soul who dedicates his or her labors and meditations towards communion with a transcendent power.  Someone who cultivates faith in the order of the world. 

The Green Hero:  The Knight.  A devoted fighter, bound by law and honor, whose battles are sanctified and justified by a higher ideal.  Someone who braves peril to do what is right.    A sworn agent of the status quo. 

The Green Ruler:  The Emperor.  A great leader, holding justice and compassion in perfect balance, who reigns over the unchanging excellence of a sacred realm.  An absolute authority who bears absolute responsibility.  A pure prime archetype.

The Green Sage:  The Canon Doctor.  A learned scholar who seeks to use human reason to approach ineffable truths.  Someone seeking to understand the deepest, truest nature of the world and its systems. 

The Green Icon:  The Saint.  An exemplar of divinity-within-humanity, whose thoughts and deeds are pure.  Someone who can stand in for the holiest and most profound values of society.

BLUE SUIT

The Blue Beast:  The Serpent.  An elemental force of subtlety, curiosity, and insight.  The drive to seek out every hidden thing, to understand every mystery, and to shatter every conceptual limitation.

The Blue Cultivator:  The Alchemist.  A person of great technical knowledge and skill, who possesses a deep abstract understanding of the concrete world.  Someone who seeks to wield knowledge for practical and worldly purposes…or who employs practical, worldly arts for the sake of advancing knowledge. 

The Blue Hero:  The Navigator.  A sojourner who ventures forth into the frightening unknown, guided by intelligence, eager to make new discoveries and to behold new wonders.  Someone who undergoes hardship to win intellectual laurels. 

The Blue Ruler:  The Philosopher-King.  A ruler whose rulership is founded upon, and guided by, reason.  An authority who seeks to employ expertise and insight to optimize his domain.  A living symbol of a theory-driven society. 

The Blue Sage:  The Sorcerer.  A brilliant researcher and wonder-worker who bends all his or her intellect towards learning new truths and expanding the limits of the possible.  A dynamo who dwells in the universe of pure understanding.  A pure prime archetype.

The Blue Icon:  The Created Woman. A beautiful, artificially-made Frankensteinian homunculus.  Someone who can stand in for all the glories that are achievable through understanding, science, and applied wisdom. 

VIOLET SUIT

The Violet Beast:  The Unicorn.  An elemental force of artistry, reflection, and profound-but-subtle emotionality.  The drive towards introspection, obsession, and nostalgia. 

The Violet Cultivator: The Musician.  An emotional laborer, dedicated to the task of filling the world with beauty and meaning that others can appreciate.  Someone who understands the technical craft of manipulating feeling. 

The Violet Hero:  The Duelist.  A bravo, able and willing to inflict harm — and to suffer harm — for the sake of deep personal sentiment.  Someone willing to invest all he has into the grand gesture, which can communicate a grand commitment of identity.   

The Violet Ruler:  The Symposiarch.  A leader whom others follow towards emotional and symbolic fulfillment.  Someone who controls how others celebrate and mourn, love and believe.  A psychological or ritual authority. 

The Violet Sage:  The Mentalist.  A person of great insight, who apprehends the workings of the human psyche, who can perceive human structures of meaning well enough to alter (or even create) them.  Someone skilled in the arts of psychology, therapy, semiotics, or self-development.

The Violet Icon:  The Muse.  A person whose very life has transcended into art, upon whom others can project their most powerful feelings, in whom others can find the purpose they seek.  Someone who can stand in for the strange, ineffable promise of existence.  A pure prime archetype.

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NOTES:

A lot of the basic concepts here — and certainly much of the color imagery — are taken from the Theosophical Rays, and from their deep-delve-crazy elaboration and reinterpretation in the work of the incomparable Rory Goff.  (Seriously, kids, hardcore semiotics can be hazardous to your epistemic health, don’t try this at home…)  Obviously there has been a lot of folding, spindling, and mutilating to make my own symbolic suite hang together.

I recognize that, in such an allegedly anthropocentric Tarot, the totemic figures of the Beasts feel a bit odd.  Nonetheless I think they belong.  Even if their Red-tinged symbolism is really about various forms of human “beastliness,” the human-as-beast is not a symbol we’re really capable of parsing at this juncture.  It’s too intuitive to look at the figure of a person — any person — and immediately see it as a sophisticated complicated being with all kinds of internalized abstractions.  Pure elemental power, of any kind, needs a totem to be legible as such.  That’s why the classic Tarot Aces are as stark as they are, and that’s why my Beasts are Beasts.

This whole thing is somewhat hacked-together.  Suggestions, thoughts, and improvements welcome (for the sake of anyone who decides to pick up the project in any way).

Tarot of the Ages of Humanity

Reconcepting the Bleak Academy

Somewhere, beyond the boundaries of all we know, in a terrible and alien realm —

— or perhaps it is actually hidden somewhere very close, nestled away from the prying eyes of heroes and saviors —

— there is a school that will make you into an enemy of existence, and train you to build monstrous wonders that stand defiant against the order of the world.

For the sake of my own health and happiness, for the well-being of my soul, this thing must be true.  Even if it isn’t.

*****

This idea has haunted me for a long, long time.  Bits and pieces of it, anyway.

The whole enemy-of-the-world, pitting-your-creation-against-reality thing is a power trope for me; it’s lodged good and deep in my psyche.  I’m not sure how it came to be quite so important, so defining.  Maybe that’s just what happens when you grow up alienated and bellicose and obsessed with genre fiction — you become hostile to the things that surround you, which might be hard to maintain if you felt totally immersed in those things, but as it is you can’t help thinking about alternatives.  And then you start self-identifying as “the guy who’s invested in the alternatives-to-reality that dwell in his heart,” and by that point the path before you has been prepared.

Anyway.

It probably wouldn’t have stuck, for me, if there hadn’t been so much good literature I could use to build on the idea.  The Cthulhu Mythos first and foremost, of course.  I started reading Lovecraft and Chambers young, and from the first I had the distinct sense that — contrary to the authors’ desires — I was supposed to be cheering for the aliens to tear down the world and replace it with something strange and wonderful.  Why else would it be so goddamn easy to identify with Wilbur Whateley?  Why else would the eerie discomfort of Carcosa and its King be so cool?  Lovecraft himself was obviously terrified of the monstrous weirdness he was depicting, and fine, that’s an author’s prerogative, but he sure did make it appealing.

(The Dream Cycle complicates this dynamic a lot, but I’ll just say…I would ride into Celephais, in a heartbeat, even if Kuranes ultimately wished that he hadn’t.)

(Like every young Sondheim fan, I get misty-eyed over the song “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods.  My mental version has slightly different lyrics, though, and it’s about a very different breed of “giants.”)

And then there was the contemporary stuff, more narrowly-focused on demiurgery and blasphemous personal vision, less defined by a fear of seafood.  The witch-labyrinths from Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  The Infernal Exalted, and their demonic patrons, from Exalted.  The Excrucians from Nobilis, by Jenna Moran.  The lamia and their “songs” from Dreaming Waters, also by Jenna Moran.

Consume enough media like that, and you’ll start to think that maybe you can create something that will stand defiant against the order of the world.

*****

School is also a power thing for me, albeit in a sort of twisted way.

I spent twenty of my thirty years of life as a student of some sort.  Many of my friends are academics.  My wife is a schoolteacher.  My mother is a professional school-admissions counselor.  I make money on the side tutoring people for school entrance exams.

There has been a lot of school in my life.  School has a kind of resonance for me that basically no other setting does.  Office work, court intrigue, quests to travel across the continent and defeat the Dark Lord — who can take such ephemera seriously?  They don’t have classes, or curricula, or reading assignments, or anything.

And yet, as it turns out, I’ve always been kind of unhappy and uncomfortable in school.  Certainly I was never very good at using scholastic infrastructure to learn.  Explaining that in depth would require more text, and more personal revelation, than anyone really wants…let it suffice to say that I’ve always been too prickly, too reflexively unwilling to work with authority figures, for standard-style instruction to work super well.  There are some bad memories, and even more, a lot of memories of wasted time.

I could get resentful, and write off the whole idea of schooling as a thing-to-which-I-am-opposed.  I’ve done a lot of that, in truth.  Disgruntlement comes naturally.  But there’s still a part of me that really wants to make it come together somehow.  I would like the glories of my youth, the ivied halls and the “life of the mind” rhetoric and so forth, to be redeemable within my own ideals and my own aesthetic.  Even if I’m notionally aligned against the schools that I actually attended, some part of them seeped into me, and…if I could find a way…I would be happier to honor that part than to cut it out in the name of consistency.

*****

So yeah.  A school for world-destroyers and blasphemous demiurges.  That’s the ticket.  The notion came together in my head a few years ago, and I got really excited about it.  I figured I could do something really cool with it.

Then I learned that there was one small problem with that project —

— someone had already done something really cool with it.  Jenna Moran.  Of course.

Here I’m referring to the Bleak Academy from Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, an institution that is basically “Excrucian college.”  It is a thing of grace and beauty.  It is a place of slice-of-life school stories intermingled with existential horror and really wonky philosophy, all presented in standard-issue gorgeous Moran prose.  It’s the sort of place that would undoubtedly have comfortable resonances for me, and the sort of place where I could feel like I was genuinely taking the enemy-of-the-world thing seriously.

Even the actual schooling part reads like it was designed to appeal to my sensibilities!

“I assume it’s sort of like a school campus. It’s probably in the model of a European campus or monastery, complete with ancient architecture and mad-eyed scholars hiding in the stacks or labyrinths. There are grad-students chained to their cubicles as they process ancient, blasphemous texts, because that’s the place where their nightmares led them. There are god-students in their onmyouji hats floating amongst the clouds, exchanging thunderbolts, because that’s the direction of their dreams. The place pulses with a sense of hidden marvel but also of delirium. Its curriculum focuses heavily on independent study as each person builds a Hell or godhood for themselves.”

Jenna Moran, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine

Yeah!

(And the most me-appropriate sub-college, the one where I’m obviously supposed to map myself, is “full of bleak wizards” but in fact structured around the study of law and moral philosophy.  Which feels…especially resonant.)

I saw that, and I put my project plans down.  I mean, what would be the point?

*****

Except that I think I’m going to pick them back up again.  On a trial basis, at least.

Because the Bleak Academy, as stunning as it is, isn’t quite right.  Not for my purposes, anyway.

…in that the whole thing is organized around the traditional Nobilis Excrucian sub-categories, which always seemed kind of hollow and arbitrary to me.

…in that the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy is Death, or at least “the lord of Death’s domain,” which strikes me as monstrously inappropriate for an institution with this purpose.

…in that the entire Chuubo’s universe is narrative, and the narratives surrounding the Bleak Academy are all about its being the Terrifying Other, and that’s the opposite of what I want.  I mean, yeah, OK, I kind of do want to be the Terrifying Other — but not from my own perspective, and it’s my own perspective that I’m trying to build up here.  I want to know, not how to stare into Excrucian eyes, but how to see through them myself.  And Moran’s characteristic brand of pop-mythic numinous hand-waving doesn’t really give me anything to work with.

…in that the thing that matters about a school, above all else, is what is learned.  The Bleak Academy is too Other for anyone consuming the text to get to sit in on the lectures or read the textbooks.

And, well, creating something from yourself is sort of what this whole thing is about —

*****

So I will try to conjure up my own school for demiurgery and blasphemy and world-breaking.  Maybe it will be too derivative to stand on its own.  Maybe my complaints about the Bleak Academy, my points of desired divergence, aren’t substantive enough for it to be worth the effort.  I could believe that.  But I’d rather give it a shot then sit here looking awkwardly at this lovely-but-not-quite-perfect toy that I’ve been given.

I’m really not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe it will be a short story, or a novel.  Maybe it will be a funky indie super-niche tabletop RPG; “watch yourself go from student to cosmic horror, from the inside” seems like a fun story for people to play out themselves.  I feel like it probably isn’t meant to become a LARP, although given my history, I suppose one can’t ever be sure.

*****

What do I know about it, at this juncture?

Very little.  Mostly there are a few scattered thoughts on curriculum.

  • Probably the whole institution is built around independent study, much like the Bleak Academy.  I wouldn’t be able to deal with it otherwise.  And normal classes don’t feel like they’re good enough at differentiating people to produce demiurges.
  • Probably there are two basic classes that you have to take early: some sort of practical physics-like principles-of-existence class that teaches you how to break down the world and replace it with your own stuff, and some sort of moral philosophy seminar that cements your resolve and helps you grow into your nature.
  • After that…I imagine a lot of small specializations, more like merit badges than like majors.  Meditation and practical psychology for the students who mostly want to change themselves and turn into monsters.  Developmental psychology, and something vaguely like bio and vaguely like Paracelsian alchemy, for the students who want to fashion demons.  Cosmology and metaphysics and architecture for the students whose visions are the broadest and least personal.  Rhetoric, and warcraft, for the students who intend to tangle with heroes and saviors.

*****

Your thoughts are very much welcomed.

Reconcepting the Bleak Academy