The Hero's Journey
What if we approach the tarot deck as a way to explore the sacred? As a path for learning about ourselves as spiritual adventurers? As a toolbox or medicine bag that can help us heal the world?
Read the two excerpts below, do the physical exercise, and post your experience in the comments.
The Hero's Journey Monomyth
"In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
"The concept was introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), who described the basic narrative pattern as follows:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
A Jewish Take on the Hero's Journey + An Exercise
From Rachel Pollack's The Forest of Souls: A Walk Through the Tarot
“In Jewish explanations of the Torah, you can take off in unexpected, even outrageous directions, as long as you can point to a biblical ‘proof text’ that supports you, whether it’s a whole passage or just a single phrase. In Tarot we do something similar. We allow people to make any number of claims about the cards, even far-fetched statements about their origins, so long as they can match their ideas to something in the pictures and their symbolism.
“A talmudic tale illuminates the radical claim to interpret. It actually uses a proof text that warns against interpretation. In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the Hebrew people about their obligations to follow God’s commandments. So that they cannot say the law is too hard for them to understand, or too mystical, or too removed from ordinary experience, Moses tells them, ‘It is not in heaven or across the seas, but in your mouths and in your hearts that you may know it’ (shortened from Deut. 30: 12-14).
“And now the story. Four rabbis were debating a point of Torah, three on one side, and on the other a certain Rabbi Eleazar. The three made their points with greater and greater eloquence, but Eleazar stubbornly held his ground. Finally, he said to them, ‘If I am right, let these walls prove me right.’ At that, the walls of the study house began to buckle and would have caved in had not one of the other rabbis commanded them to stop. This proves nothing, the three said to Eleazar. In that case, he said, ‘If I am right, let the waters prove me right.’ When the rabbis looked outside, they saw that a nearby stream had begun to flow uphill.
“It proves nothing, the three insisted. Now Eleazar cried, ‘If I am right, let the Holy One Himself prove me right!’ At that, the day became dark, and a voice shook the study house. ‘WHY DO YOU CONTEND WITH MY SON ELEAZAR? SURELY HE IS RIGHT IN ALL THINGS!’
“Now there was a long silence. Finally one of the three rabbis cast his eyes upward and said, ‘And what has this to do with You? Does not Your own book say that it is not in heaven but in our mouths and in our hearts that we may know it? So? Let us know it.’ Now the darkness withdrew, and Rabbi Eleazar finally agreed to respect the majority.
“Later that day, the prophet Elijah was walking past the Throne when he saw God smile. When he asked the source of God’s pleasure, God said to him, ‘My children have corrected me.’
“So as we explore the Tarot, with all its wonders and intricacies, let us remember to do so with our mouths, sharing what we discover, and with our hearts — with deep feeling and commitment to emotional truth.
“…For our first Jewish exploration, we turn to a famous legend about one of the great sages of Jewish history, a rabbi named Hillel, who lived around the same time as Jesus. Hillel was one of the founders of the rabbinical tradition of interpretation, famous in his lifetime as a great teacher. one evening he was studying alone when a group of vandals broke into his room. They had not come to steal or destroy, only to taunt the man who had devoted his life to subtle interpretations. They ordered him out of his chair and demanded that he stand on one foot. While he balanced himself, they insisted that he teach them his entire Torah before he could relax. Hillel looked hard at them and said, ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is explanation.’ Then he put his foot down.
“…As time went on, people became fascinated by the question of a statement you could make about the essence of Torah so short and perfect you could say it while standing on one foot.
“About one hundred fifty years after Hillel, the great Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph took up the challenge. A big, full-bearded warrior of a man, Akiba not only led his people in rebellion against Rome, he also was a legendary astrologer who helped found the mystical tradition that in later centuries developed into Kabbalah. When Akiba considered a one-sentence definition of Torah, he chose the commandment from Leviticus: ‘You shall love the neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus made a similar choice when he stated that to love your neighbor was ‘the whole of the law.’
“Another rabbi challenged Akiba. What if you didn’t love yourself? Then you would treat your neighbor badly. He chose instead God’s statement from Genesis, ‘Let us make man in our image.’ When we recognize that we, and everyone else, exist in the image of God, we have no choice but to love ourselves and each other.
“Now, the idea of the image of God is an interesting one. People who take it very literally assume God must look like a man, and so we get the famous image of God as an old man on a golden throne, which is a nice picture for a story (though very sexist), but causes no end of trouble when people treat it as a statement of fact. But if we take it that we contain the essence of God, it becomes a much deeper concept. The very core of Judaism, like Islam after it, lies in the idea of a God beyond any fixed definition, beyond all the images we attempt to place on the divine.
“We are approaching Tarot now, because the Tarot works entirely in images, seventy-eight of them, that all the volumes of explanations can never pin down. Remember the description of the Tarot as keys. Maybe we can say that, rather than unlocking readymade secrets, the Tarot keys unlock us from all our definitions and limited conceptions of ourselves and the universe.”
Pollack goes on to mention “the four-letter name of God that appears in the Bible…unpronounceable, a symbol that God’s true nature lies beyond our mental definitions” and asks us to “compare the four letters to the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, and therefore the four suits of the Minor Arcana and the four court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page).” Concluding that “the fact that we cannot pronounce God’s most powerful name is a paradox similar to the idea that a God without a fixed image has made us in God’s image.”
She continues: “With all this in mind (!), why not consider what we might say about the Tarot while standing on one foot? The first thing to realize is that if you stand on one foot, you create the image of the World card…the card of spiritual attainment…try acting this out. Stand up (on both feet) and take a few deep breaths to center yourself for balance. Feel your legs planted on the Earth for a strong connection. Hold your arms out slightly to the sides and, when you can trust your balance, life one leg and cross it behind the other. Breathe deeply and, as you hold the posture, open your mind to any thoughts or images about the essence of Tarot.
“The first time I thought about this,” she writes “I came up with a sentence something like, ‘The Tarot is a map of the soul’s journey from birth to enlightenment.’ But then I realized this might describe what the cards do, but not their inner core. And so I let myself go deeper, and the following statement came to me: The Tarot is seventy-eight images that are gateways to the Imageless.”
For me, the statement is: Tarot connects us to our mythopoetic existence.
What is it for you? Really, do the physical exercise and see what comes up for you. Post in the comments, and let’s discuss!