SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

by contemplativeinquiry

This post is inspired by The Byzantine Tarot, a collaboration between two notable talents – John Matthews as writer and Cilla Conway as artist. It’s an excellent piece of work, but this post is not a review. It’s about two of the major trumps and their effect on me.

I impulse-bought the pack about a month ago. I didn’t get it for divination. I wanted it for the iconography of the major trumps, though in fact all the cards are carefully chosen and beautifully rendered. Part of the integrity of this tarot is that the images are drawn from the culture they reference – a culture itself very busy with sacred images, though at times its ruling circles reacted against them. Cilla Conway’s work is a wonderful evocation of this culture and its imagery, an imagery consciously crafted in the service of Christian Orthodoxy*.  It’s an interesting subject for a tarot pack, since the tarot form itself introduces an element of gnostic subversion into the work.

In the Byzantine Tarot, Sophia appears as the Papesse/High Priestess. She mediates “between the higher and lower realms of creation, watching over the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessings to find their own path through the world”. In the apparent world, Byzantine Orthodoxy had no vacancy for a Papesse/High Priestess, and was not in business to encourage people to find their own way unless it was also the Churches’ way. The Fool of this tarot is a Holy Fool and draws on the history of the Desert Fathers, though the specific image is from Moscow, for the Slav world inherited the Orthodox tradition and the role of the Holy Fool. There is a happy reframing of these formidable world-renouncing ascetics in the text. A naked, haloed man steps outside his cell raising his hands towards the dove of the Holy Spirit and “prepares to step off into the air above the sea, asking without words to be allowed to access the joy and wonder of the world”. He is said to represent ‘crazy wisdom’, also known to Sufi and Buddhist tradition.

I feel engaged with these images, but not close to the Orthodox Church. Fortunately good images transcend doctrine. They have a larger suggestive power. I see a Goddess, depicted in one card as an angelic intercessor and in the other as a dove. I see a devotee who is a completely opened up. I’m learning how development works in spirals. A few years ago I was taken up with the image of Sophia and this modified my experience of Druidry. It was initially her influence that got me to explore meditative disciplines and see through the eye of contemplation more systematically. When my exploration took me further East, my specific sense of Sophia began to diminish.

Two tarot images have brought her back into my life. Now that she’s in my life, I have to move on from the specific images, for all their potent catalyst role. In relation to my life and practice, the Sophia depicted is too hierophantic and static. I like the Holy Fool icon, but the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ references in the text open up unwelcome possibilities of dogmatic intuitionism and licensed abuse-by-Guru that we find in Crazy Wisdom Masters from many traditions.

If I want to orient myself to the ‘Holy Fool’ archetype, there are lines within W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, which act as a better guide. He starts with the complaint “That is no country for old men” – Ireland, but more essentially the world of “whatever is begotten, born and dies, caught in … sensual music”. Then he says:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

On my reading the world of begetting, birthing and dying – with all its sensual music – is absolutely fine and to be celebrated. It’s the being “caught” in it that’s the problem. For there is another dimension. The seven directions operate vertically as well as horizontally, with eternity at the centre, within, around and throughout.  Sophia reminds me of this, and it changes everything.

* Early in the 4th century C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine began the Christianisation of the Empire and moved the capital eastwards from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantium which he rebuilt and modestly renamed Constantinople. Two hundred years later when Orthodox Christianity was dominant and enforceable, a new Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became the greatest building of the city. It still is in some ways, having survived two conversions since the fall of the city in 1453, first into a mosque and later into a museum in today’s Istanbul.

Matthews, John & Conway, Cilla The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom from an Ancient Empire London: Connections Book Publications, 2015

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)

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