The Tarot Muse
Carolyn R. Guss
Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Teacher

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Part II: Trump XVIII: Walking the Path of the MOON

by Carolyn R. Guss- The Tarot Muse


It is midwinter, or perhaps early Spring. The trees are still bare and the night sky mostly clear, aside from a few errant puffs of clouds up high and to the left, along with a bank of Stratocumulus hanging close to the horizon. There is no water in sight, but the scent of water whispers. Up high a silvery Full Moon shines, seemingly oblivious to the couple who walk beneath its uncertain light. The man is wearing a jester-type outfit of creamy-white: loose tunic, baggy pants, and a pointed cap askew on his head.

His companion, who clasps his arm lightly but surely (this is not a first date) wears a dress of midnight blue, almost black, such that she would blend in with the forest and dark sky behind her were it not for her rose-tinted cap with streaming ribbons and double-pocketed apron. He seems a little bandy-legged, perhaps having celebrated too much; she steadies him with blue-shod feet planted demurely on the earth. Is this pair heading home or just starting out? Either way, it seems they are trusting in that Full Moon high above them to guide their way there.

I am staring fondly at a reproduction of Henri Rousseau's Carnival Evening, one of my favorite paintings. Slowly but surely the imagery shifts and, ever so subtly, becomes the MOON card of the Tarot, trump XVIII. And like a scene from Cinderella, the wobbly-legged man in his festive white suit becomes an eager dog wagging his tail; his female companion turns into a she-wolf, with sharp ears perked in place of the streamered cap. They lift their heads to the full lunar orb and bay loudly together. Then, realizing that they stand on opposite sides of a pathway, they run off into the night.

They are the HERMIT and HIGH PRIESTESS of the Tarot, shapeshifting.

A former ad campaign for IKEA corporation stated--referring to the U.S., I guess--"It's a big country, somebody's got to furnish it." One might say the same about the MOON card in the Tarot, which knows no boundaries, much like its equivalent, the subconscious. One of only two cards in the Major Arcana that doesn't contain humans (the other being trump X, the WHEEL OF FORTUNE), it seems a terrain not in need of them, much as the world was before human life entered the picture plane. Nevertheless, if there is a landscape, no matter how barren or forbidding, there is a human who will traverse it, or die trying. Thus, we meet the lunar people of the Tarot.

At first glance, neither HIGH PRIESTESS (trump II) nor HERMIT(trump ix) seems adventurers. She is sitting pretty in her temple, gracefully centered between two pillars (the same two we find in the MOON card, sixteen trumps later), with little need or inclination to arise. "Can she even stand and walk?" a student asked me once. I had never thought about it, as she seems so complete and self-contained where she is. Can she indeed?? Would she want to, I have asked myself since then, and am still not sure of the answer. She seems to reside in a place of perfection, where all is in harmony. But maybe not. She is only number 2, with 19 trumps remaining in the Major Arcana (unless one views the group in reverse order, in which she is two from the end). And yet two is what most of us aspire to, when we seek out a partnership.

The HERMIT is an old man who stands alone on an icy mountain top at night, looking down. But how did he get there? His entire survival kit seems to consist of a gray wool cloak with hood, a staff almost as tall as he is, and a lantern containing a brightly burning six-pointed star (an exploration of which could easily consume an article of its own). He raises his lamp high at the same time as he gazes downward, gladly beckoning others up to the place where he stands. "Misery loves company," eh? Not quite. He looks tranquil and knowing, not lonely and miserable. Is he crazy enough to think we want to go there too? One of a number of ongoing debates among Tarot devotees is the issue of whether the HERMIT is journeying or has arrived. The "journeying" camp emphasizes his cloak as traveling garb and his staff as a walking stick; the lantern as well suggests that he is moving and needing to bring his light with him, much as we would carry a flashlight or torch. The "arrived" group cites his static posture and interprets the staff as planted in the ground, much as numerous Biblical and religious figures have done, from Moses to Joseph of Arimathea. Indeed, the HERMIT's feet are together, and he seems to have found a place to stand. But even if he has arrived, he has had to come from somewhere, walked some path. And that is the path of the MOON.

Numerologically it makes sense. The HERMIT is trump IX (9); the MOON, trump XVIII (18). Two-times-nine equals eighteen, just as half of eighteen is nine. (Remember that two). It makes sense then that the HERMIT walks the path of the Moon--that winding, desolate trail that leads between the two pillars on the right and left sides of the card and beyond. In The Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack makes the point that the Moon card's columns are "the pillars of the High Priestess seen from the other side" and suggests that they represent "the last complete manifestation of that duality we first saw in the High Priestess's temple." This adds weight to the HERMIT-as-traveler idea--along with the knowledge that the Moon itself is a traveler, journeying in and out of the astrological signs--indeed, traversing an entire zodiac--within 30 days.

The Hebrew letter associated with the HERMIT is Yod, which translates to mean open hand. Yod is also, in the ancient spiritual tradition, considered to be the first letter of God's name, or "the Name of Names." It is shaped somewhat like a teardrop and appears in several other Tarot cards, including the MOON, in which eighteen yods descend from the rays of the lunar orb--as if the HERMIT himself had opened his lantern and loosed droplets of light, like wisdom, upon the earth.

Located directly above the HERMIT in the traditional arrangement of The Fool's Journey (three rows of seven cards each), the HIGH PRIESTESS represents the first initiation into the lunar path. The HERMIT cannot get there without her, just as the MOON card's dog must evolve from a wolf, and Rousseau's nocturnal lady steadies her male companion.

The PRIESTESS card's planetary ruler is the Moon; to emphasize their bond she wears, in the Waite-Smith version, the triple crown of Isis, linking her to that deity, along with other lunar goddesses such as Artemis, Diana, Selene, and Hecate. The phases--waxing, full, and waning--also correspond to the three phases of the goddess: maiden, mother, and crone. In that way, all three reside in the PRIESTESS, who contains all possibilities, although as yet unrealized. A crescent Moon rests at her feet as well, although in other versions of the deck it appears beneath the feet of the EMPRESS, trump III (a companion female archetype to trump II). The Moon, as we know, governs the ocean's tides, along with, as Robert Wang states in Qabalistic Tarot, "the tides of the waters of consciousness." Thus, a close connection resides between the Moon and water. A deeply feminine symbol, water in the Tarot refers to the subconscious, which comprises the veiled temple over which the HIGH PRIESTESS presides. Indeed, her shimmering blue robe seems composed of water itself.

The Hebrew letter associated with the HIGH PRIESTESS is Gimel, which translates to camel. Camels, repositories of water, carry us across the desert, a barren and forbidding terrain, often to arrive at some wonder--or at least an oasis (source of fresh water). It seems no coincidence that the legendary Three Kings who visited the infant Jesus made their journey on camel back. Thus, the HIGH PRIESTESS serves as the elusive guardian of the waters, just as the Moon is the regulator of the tides. As Wang explains it, "The idea of the HIGH PRIESTESS as pure vessel is commensurate with the retentive qualities of the camel, an animal which stores water for a long desert trip."

The receptive vessel emphasizes her virginal qualities, a characteristic she shares with the HERMIT, whose own energy is virginal as well as sexual (although restricted or repressed). The HERMIT card's ruler is the astrological sign Virgo (the Virgin), and in the Qabalistic tradition the function of the Hebrew letter defining the HERMIT is Touch and Sexuality. Indeed it makes sense that he may have channeled his sexual energy into contemplation and the acquisition of wisdom, much as monks or friars do in most religious traditions. Every virgin has the potential to be a sexual entity; and potential is a key concept in understanding the HIGH PRIESTESS as well.

Camels are also associated with the carrying of messages across the desert, serving much the same function as nineteenth-century America's Pony Express. The HIGH PRIESTESS brings us messages from the subconscious mind, often through dreams or intuitive urges. Likewise, receiving the HERMIT card in a reading suggests drawing-on our own inner wisdom for the answers we seek. (The word hermit, interestingly enough, has its roots in the Greek word eremites, "of the desert," from eremia, "desert, solitude," the place where early hermits dwelled.)

Although various other Tarot cards share lunar connections, I would like to draw attention to two that seem to serve as Minor Arcana counterparts to the HIGH PRIESTESS and the HERMIT: the Two of Swords and Eight of Cups, respectively. In the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot the Two of Swords, with its astrological connection to Moon in Libra, depicts a blindfolded figure (most probably a woman) wearing a white gown and seated on a cubic stone bench. Behind her flow waters punctuated by rocks, beneath a waxing Moon in an otherwise dark sky. The figure holds two large swords, blades pointing outwards, in perfect balance across her chest. The card is numbered two, same as the HIGH PRIESTESS, and the setting is not dissimilar to that Major Arcana card, although as Pollack points out, "A veil separates the Priestess from the waters of the unconscious hidden behind her; no veil protects the blindfolded woman from her disturbed pool of emotions." Just as nothing protects us from the open water and struggling crayfish in trump XVIII MOON.

Like the HIGH PRIESTESS, Two of Swords is a complex card; receiving it in a reading might indicate the need to make a decision or choice without the benefit of our physical sense of sight (it is sometimes called the ESP card, which calls up the concept of second sight). Another name for this card is "Peace," just as the Hebrew letter Gimel (camel) that stands for the HIGH PRIESTESS carries the double function of "Peace/War." (And indeed, swords can be used to keep the peace or wage war.)

In studying the Two of Swords one wonders whether the figure is at peace with herself (the serene, centered posture and graceful white robe) or at war (her guarded protective stance, along with the wielding of two substantial weapons). The landscape and overall atmosphere of the card can be equally viewed as benign or threatening. There may be information here that is not consciously revealed. But it is easy to believe that, like the PRIESTESS, the woman in the Two of Swords knows--or perceives--something we do not.

The Eight of Cups does not share a number with the HERMIT, although its astrological connection is Saturn in Pisces (the latter being the ruler of the Tarot's MOON card). As with trump XVIII, the Eight of Cups depicts a desolate landscape, complete with craggy hills and murky water. A figure (probably male) wearing red boots and cloak--and carrying a staff for support--traverses the territory, having turned his back on the eight cups that dominate the foreground. As in the MOON card, the Eight of Cups' lunar visage seems to have two faces, which can be perceived as both full and waning moons or, as Pollack views it, "an eclipse, with the moon moving across the face of the sun"--such that the figure's subconscious mind may be "eclipsing" his conscious desires. Not unlike the HERMIT, who eschews worldly pleasures in order to undertake a spiritual journey through what might seem inhospitable terrain.

The figure in the Eight of Cups looks up at the celestial occurrence as if drawing guidance from it, much as the MOON card's wolf and dog bay instinctively at the orb above them. In similar fashion the HERMIT receives--and offers--illumination from his lantern held aloft. The pilgrim in this Minor Arcana card travels, perhaps aspiring to that place above him where the HERMIT stands. In a reading the Eight of Cups can signify moving away from worldly concerns--and even other people--into the realm of the unknown--with the Moon, uncertain as her light seems, as our guide.

So--to address the question raised at the conclusion of this article's Part I (which can be accessed in the Library section of this website)--does the MOON card in Tarot represent source? Wang states that "The source of Water is the idea behind the idea behind form." The HIGH PRIESTESS, with her veiled water, serves as a symbol of that source. Like the camel, who physically retains water, the HIGH PRIESTESS contains, as Wang explains it, "the memories of the [human] race as well as those of the Cosmos." In the MOON card that same water is now exposed and subject to all manner of fears, as symbolized by the crayfish. "In some respects," Wang says, "the form emerging from the waters is the highest creative force, beginning its material self-expression as the lowest organic form. The crayfish means the organic evolution of the human race; it also refers to the cellular development of the physical vehicle from the inner roots of nature." Thus, that crustacean attempting to emerge from its watery home represents "the very originator of life."

Now isn't that as source-ful as you can get? And we saw it all here first, in the Tarot's mystic MOON.