Fool and Zero

It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.

Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.

All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.

But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.

This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.

Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.

But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.

Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.

From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.

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Prayers for Election Day

Today I pray that as many people as possible make it to the polls to vote. Even in an off year, because this is a key piece of political magic.

I pray that their votes are counted.

I pray that their will – our will – be done.

Tonight I will light a candle and watch the election results come in. Join me?

Posted in civil rights

Samhain – Sacred Grief

Grief is work. If you don’t know that, then your experience of grieving has been very different from mine. Grief is hard work, as hard as lifting a thousand pounds of emptiness, over and over again, with every breath, every moment of every day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that grieving is a process; you may even have heard of the famous five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross outlined so brilliantly. But many popularizations reduce this to a simple linear structure, as if we can simply chart our movement through the stages and then know that we are finished with each one. That is a laughably silly – or perhaps lamentably silly – oversimplification of one of the deepest things human beings experience.

Yes, grieving is a process, and it is one that we go through many times over. Even simple choices can trigger a bout of grieving for the alternatives now forever closed off. I would be hard-pressed to name a point in my life that was utterly free from the work of grieving, even if those griefs were often of the smaller, everyday variety.

I have been thinking about grief a lot because it has been a big part of my own work this year. Beginning with the loss of my mother, so many transitions came up so quickly that it was almost overwhelming. I was doing fairly well with it all until we moved, and then I fell apart. Even though that last upheaval was for good reasons and with a good outcome, the separation from my familiar places and familiar faces was just one more thing to grieve, and I couldn’t take it.

So I have been acutely aware of the way that grief is hard work this year. At times it has been more than I could bear, and I had to struggle just to endure, to do the simple, horribly difficult work of breathing and eating and sleeping with the weight of loss all around me and within me. Yes, it gradually lessens over time, until it becomes merely as hard as physical labor, merely grueling and exhausting. Now, a year later, it is part of my everyday work, a fact of life, a part of my practice.

This led me to thinking about how we could make this a sacred kind of work instead of a bare necessity? As I said at Mabon, I don’t flee the world or my experiences of it. I am called as a Witch to dive deeper into them, to commit myself fully to this life and this work, as it evolves and changes, both the deep joy and the deep grief that are part of the human experience.

So how does this become part of our practice? One of my thoughts is that maybe we can try practicing grieving in a way similar to that of practicing gratitude. I’m not talking about putting on a false front of grief; if you’re not experiencing grief, then you can give thanks for that, and maybe you can just sit with those who are, being a witness for them. You don’t have to try to experience it yourself – it will come to you in its own time, and then you will know that grief is hard work. And if you are blessed, you will have others willing to witness it and maybe to do it with you.

For the past 30 days on Facebook I have been putting this into practice by basically inviting people to grieve with me, to engage in small moments of remembrance. Some of them have generated deep stories, and I’m sure many more moments of deep reflection have occurred without being shared, as was best for the person experiencing them. After this practice, I am more convinced than ever that this is valuable work because of the way it goes against the grain of the overculture, which doesn’t really know what to do with grief. Someone said to me recently that following a bereavement she grieved “far beyond what was socially acceptable.” That says to me that she needed that grieving and society simply didn’t know what to do with it.

As a result, I ask that we in Wicca and Paganism try to include grieving in our practice, as part of making better ways to work with grief, to make space for it, and to acknowledge the hard work that it is. We have special kinds of awareness to bring to this work, because instead of falling into the simplicity of viewing grief as a linear process, we bring the wisdom of our circles and cycles to bear, and we can make it part of our work at this time of year to grieve again our own losses, as much as we need to, and to grieve with those who are grieving fresh losses – making space, making time, and being willing to dedicate the energy necessary to doing the work of grieving.

Grief is hard work. Let’s do it together. Let’s make it part of our practice.

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Mabon – Element of Water

Continuing the series I started a few years ago, I’d like to spend time this Mabon focusing on the Element of Water. As we continue to travel around the Wheel of the Year, we have come to the season of autumn and the western direction, both of which are associated with Water in my system of correspondences.

Water is represented in the Tarot by the suit of Cups, which is associated with emotions and relationships. Anything having to do with feelings, both internal and external, is in the domain of Water. These cards represent a multiplicity of emotions, from the joy of love to the nostalgia of childhood and also the ennui of depression and the ambivalence of setting out on a new path. In trying to represent such a wide range of emotional states, the Cups are both inviting and challenging cards to work with.

This makes them – and the whole metaphor of Water – a good place for reflection. Water itself is reflective, but not always perfectly so, and it is most reflective when it is still. But at the same time, water, like our emotional state, is seldom still, and that’s a good thing, because motion prevents stagnation with both water and emotions. Reflection is important, but it’s easy to get caught up in that reflection, like Narcissus, and stay caught there. The way to stay healthy is to balance the right amount of movement and stillness together.

At this time of the equinox, we like to think about balance, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of that balance as a single point, the perfect moment of equality, as if that were a stable thing. But it’s not; even if that moment of balance happens for a second, it’s because of the motion around it, through that moment, which makes the balancing possible. We see the same thing in yoga, where in even the stillest of balancing postures constant tiny movements are happening to keep the balance going in a dynamic fashion.

Water teaches us that every balance is a dynamic situation, and that we are always in motion, just as water is always moving under the pull of the moon. We are always changing, and that’s essential to us remaining healthy, just as moving water remains a healthy part of a larger system, while still water soon grows stagnant.

Thus our reflections too are constantly changing. Our own self-image has to shift and ripple to absorb the changes that are constantly moving us and our relationships. Similarly, all our relationships have a dynamic component; the relationship itself is a living thing, always changing, in small ways and big ones. This too is part of remaining healthy, because a relationship cut off from changes, isolated from adapting to the living situations of the participants, will soon react as any living thing does without water: it withers and dies.

Seen from another perspective, though, death is just another one of the changes that we encounter, and so it deserves our respect as part of the dynamic balance of life. In this sunset season of the year, we become aware that no matter how much love we pour into the world, the consequence of all things changing is that eventually all things will pass away. Even those things that seem “set in stone” are worn away by the movement of water over time.

This awareness that change is the only constant leads to different kinds of attitudes. Some people embrace that knowledge to such a degree that they become detached from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and they reckon this a great gift, so that pain and joy alike become distant and life as a whole becomes less turbulent. I do not follow that path. I prefer to remain immersed in the ups and downs of life’s white water. The knowledge that the only balance is dynamic helps me cope with both the peaks and the troughs; I savor the sweetness of the good times all the more because I know they will end, and I console myself during the down times with an awareness that they too are fleeting, though perhaps never as quickly as we would wish. Still, the knowledge of variation helps me ride the waves as they come, moving with the flow of life’s waters.

When we get out of balance – because we will, we all will, it will always happen – the knowledge that change is the only constant helps us adapt and move on, flowing with the movement around us to try to find a new dynamic balance, one that we can maintain for a while longer. Still, that sense that things are passing away, even if we know that something new is coming, is one of the most difficult feelings we deal with. We will talk about that more at Samhain.

So I leave you with this idea: water is an apt metaphor not only for our relationships but for so much of our changeable lives and how we have to learn to cope with them. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow have more in common than we like to think. Embrace the moment of equinox, my dears, and we will turn our faces to Samhain soon enough.

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Finding the value of repetition

Right now my personal work makes it clear that I’m going to have to go back and work through some parts of my past and myself again. When faced with this, one of my first thoughts is that there must be something wrong with me to have to do this work over again, even if it’s a little deeper and a little different each time. I wish I could just do it once and have those “issues” taken care of, have them no longer be issues at all.

But that’s a silly thing to think. Take grounding and centering as an example; I was just recently teaching someone new to Wicca about grounding and centering, and could not encourage her enough to practice it repeatedly. Of course grounding and centering is something that’s never “done” or “finished.” I know we have to practice repeatedly.

In the same way, no one would expect to be finished with practicing yoga; heck, we don’t even expect that a very practiced yogini can instantly bend or twist into any given position without the proper preparatory work in a given session. The value is the practice, even when it seems repetitive and simplistic.

Why should I expect the “big” work to be any different?

I’m actually a fan of repetition in ritual across time; it builds familiarity and power in the words and actions, if you do it mindfully (which is just another example of why mindfulness is a root practice for any kind of spiritual work). There can be a wonderful sense of comfort in knowing that you’re doing something you’ve done before, perhaps that others have done before you, perhaps for years on end. In a relatively young religion like Wicca, that sense of comfort is hard to come by, so perhaps I prize it all the more when it does happen in ritual. I know that I have found similar comfort in familiar yoga routines and comfort in the same practices of grounding and centering as well.

So my full moon work this month is going to be looking at things that I want to think I can “fix” once and for all, and instead giving myself space and grace to value the repetition. I realize now that maybe some parts of my personal work will never be finished, or fixed, or whatever it is I wish they were. Maybe I should see them as part of my ongoing practice, not part of my past. I can savor the small differences each time I repeat them, knowing that my progress is a spiral, not an endless loop, but perhaps I can learn to savor the familiarity as well.

How is repetition or ongoing practice part of your work? How could it be a greater part of your work?

Posted in theaology

Review – Carson, Celebrate Wildness

Celebrate Wilderness Front Cover w Blurb6 copy

Carson, Jo. Celebrate Wildness: Magic, mirth, and love on the Feriferia path. Natural Motion Pictures: Fairfax, CA. 2015. 116 pages.

This work is not just a book; it is really a complicated work of art with interleavings of prose, poetry, liturgy, theaology (sic) and lots and lots of visual art by Fred Adams, the founder of Feriferia. Together it is designed to communicate something of the Feriferia consciousness of the world to the reader/viewer, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

The name Feriferia means “celebrate wildness,” from the roots feri-, meaning wild as in feral, and feria, to celebrate. This ecotopian new religious movement founded by Fred Adams after a vision in the early 1950s that everything is united and alive, and the spirit of all is goddess. Out of this came his dedication to creating a new approach to life which revolted against the overculture of the 1950s by celebrating wildness. As Carson expresses it, “Our great work is to unify ecology, artistry, mythology, and liturgy to create a paradise on earth.” (43)

This book serves as an introductory gateway to Feriferia, which concentrates on the ineffable in wildness and cannot be fully expressed even by such a complicated piece of art as this book, although it does a good job of capturing the ecstatic spirit of the movement. Adams’ art constitutes a significant portion of the work, and for those interested in accessing the original spirit of Feriferia, there is nothing like going directly to the source. He drew goddesses in all sorts of contexts and imaginative settings, and these reproductions are as much an important part of the resources in this book as the text.

Part 1 is composed of descriptions of key pieces of art and the ideas they illustrate in the Feriferia path. These introduce the idea of goddess and god as partners, named Kore and Kouros (young woman and young man, in Greek), although Kore, also described as the Divine Daughter, is the central figure in Feriferia myth and practice.

Part 2 introduces the reader to a number of those practices, describing how to create a sacred space, described as a Faerie Ring Henge, whose attributes correspond to the directions and the Wheel of the Year, which is followed by a fuller explanation of the year myth and seasonal celebrations. Interestingly, Feriferia includes a  ninth holy day, named Repose, around the time of American Thanksgiving, between Samhain and Yule. It marks another stage in the goddess’ retreat into her winter seclusion. Also discussed are the phytala, the symbol of Feriferia, the importance of fruit trees, and a number of basic ritual practices, including a lovely ritual for planting and blessing a tree.

Part 3 is described as the “deep roots” of Feriferia, and goes into the mythological sources from which it draws inspiration. Especially important is the myth of Demeter and Persephone (also called Kore, the daughter). This myth played a central role in the Eleusinian mysteries, and like many new religious movements, Feriferia applies its own imaginations to what those mysteries might have been and how they might be translated into modern practice. There is also an emphasis on certain interpretations of Cretan culture, with some citations of archeological studies, although this is not by any means a reconstructionist movement.

Part 4 is entitled “Paradisal Magic – Letting it Blossom” and contains a composite of dreams about how Feriferia could be made manifest in the world, advanced topics including suggestions for exploring sensual sexuality as part of magical practice, a ritual for self-initiation into Feriferia, and Adams’ own “Hallows of Feriferia,” a manifesto of the movement’s intentions.

The material that comes directly from Adams sometimes reads a bit like a Dr Bronner’s soap label with its triumphant proclamations of ideas too grand to be expressed without inventing new compound hyphenated words – love-play-work is an especial touchstone – but this exuberance communicates the joyful sense of idealism that characterized this movement like others in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have some concerns about the use of mythology based partially on archaeological and other types of research. Carson writes that Feriferia’s “utopian visions of the future” are bolstered by knowing that Crete was an entirely peaceful matrifocal society for over a thousand years. (75) But what if new research proves otherwise? How will the foundations of the faith react to the kind of changes that are part of the nature of research-based knowledge?

In another place, the author states that only humans and the great apes menstruate, when this is in fact not the case. (83) Now, the fact that humans have hidden estrus (which is technically a different thing from menstruation) may very well have played an important role in the development of human bonding and social behavior, but the way it is stated is prone to misinterpretation that endangers the conclusions when scientific knowledge changes, as it inevitably will.

My biggest discomfort about the book is that something about the approach feels slightly off to me in a feminist sense. It’s very hard to put my finger on, but the whole attitude seems like it honors the goddess as the divine feminine other, perpetuating the idea that masculinity is normal and the feminine is other. The clearest example I can point to is that I am inclined to distrust a religious leader who claims to be trying to balance out “the excesses of patriarchy” but still refers to humankind as “mankind” repeatedly in his manifesto. (16, 104)

Overall, though, the movement is not restricted to Fred Adams’ personal beliefs and practices, and this work is the kind of introduction that a complicated subject like Feriferia deserves. I admire the idea of creating a poetic religion that restores soul to the earth and honors the divine feminine, and this work is certainly an extraordinary compilation of key materials from one of the groundbreaking movements in that area.

The author provided a copy of the work and asked me to write about it as part of her “blog tour” for the book. As always, I did my best not to let that influence my review.

Posted in Pagan, reviews | Tagged , ,

How many major arcana to expect in a Tarot reading?

For the last topic in my series on mathematical investigations of Tarot, I want to discuss how many major arcana cards should be expected in a typical spread of ten cards. The answer to this is a little difficult to calculate, and it draws on the work we’ve done so far. We established that the number of distinct ten-card arrangements (spreads) without reversals is 78! / 68!, which is approximately 4.56 * 10 ^ 18.

In order to find out the probability of having, say, 4 major arcana cards in a ten-card spread, we can figure out the number of different arrangements of four majors and six minors are possible. That gives us the number of different spreads with exactly four major arcana cards in it. If we divide that number by the total number of ten-card spreads, we get the probability of having four major arcana out of ten.

To find out how many ten-card spreads have exactly four majors, imagine that we split the deck into two groups: majors and minors. First we draw four majors at random, then draw six minors at random. How many different ways can we do that? We’re going to use a concept called combinations to figure out. Combinations are like permutations, except in combinations order does not matter. Combinations are like a salad – all the ingredients are mixed up together. Permutations are like a sandwich – which thing is on top matters.

To figure out how many combinations of four major arcana cards are possible, say we draw four. There are 22 possibilities for the first card, 21 possibilities for the second, 20 for the third, and 19 for the fourth, so there are 22*21*20*19 = 22! / (22-4)! = 22! / 18!. But this way of counting would assume that the order of drawing matters, when in fact we haven’t arranged the cards into the final spread yet at all. So this number is counting it as different if we draw the Fool, the Star, the World, and the Hanged Man as opposed to the Hanged Man, the Star, the World, and the Fool. These are different permutations (different orderings) but the same combination. Each combination can occur in 4*3*2*1 different permutations, so each one is being counted 4! = 24 times. If we take the result above and divide by 4!, we’ll get the correct number of combinations of four major arcana cards: 22! / (4! * 18!)

For the combination of six minor arcana cards, we can do the same thing and get 56! / (6! * 50!)

So now we have a combination of four majors and six minors and we have to make a Tarot spread out of them. For any set of ten cards there are 10! (= 10*9*8*…*2*1) ways to arrange these into a ten-card spread because the positions of the cards matters.

Then we can multiply these results together to figure out how many Tarot spreads there are with four majors and six minors: (22! / (4! * 18!)) * 56! / (6! * 50!) * 10! = 8.62 * 10 ^ 17.

Now that number isn’t really useful to us. All it tells me off the top of my head is that the number of spreads with four majors is smaller than the total number of spreads (and if we had gotten the opposite result, we’d know something was wrong with our math!). How much smaller is it? Well, we can divide: the number of spreads with four majors divided by the total number of spreads is 0.1887.

That number is a probability! Specifically, it’s the probability that a randomly-dealt spread of ten cards has exactly four major arcana in it. If you remember that percentages are probabilities times 100, then that number tells you that about 18% of your ten-card Tarot spreads will have four major arcana cards.

I used the same process to calculate the probability of having zero, one, two, and so on majors in a ten-card spread. Here are my results:

  • For a spread with no major arcana cards the probability is 0.0282
  • 1 major has probability 0.1324
  • 2 majors has probability 0.2607
  • 3 majors has probability 0.2838
  • 4 majors has probability 0.1887
  • 5 majors has probability 0.07994
  • 6 majors has probability 0.0217
  • 7 majors has probability 0.0037
  • 8 majors has probability 0.00039
  • 9 majors has probability 0.00002
  • 10 majors has probability 5.138 * 10 ^ -7 (that’s a number starting with six zeroes after the decimal place)

Interestingly, you’re most likely to get three majors in a ten-card spread, and almost as likely to get just two majors. Anytime you see more than four majors it is going to be very unusual, and anything with more than half majors is extremely unusual.

The most surprising result to me was that you have less than a 3% chance of getting a spread that is all minors. What surprises you about these results?

Note these results are rounded. If you add them up you will get almost (but not quite) 1.000, which is what we should get (there’s 100% probability of one of these conditions occurring when we deal a ten-card spread).

Again, these results took some effort to calculate, so if you use them, please link back.

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