Pardon the Hanged Man

By Melanie Harris

I’ve noticed an appalling trend on the daily talk shows lately that makes me wonder if we’ve gone back in time a hundred years.  “The Morning Show” recently featured an anthropologist discussing her theory that we choose our lovers based on their DNA, that a wide jaw shows masculinity, that a rounder face on a man indicates femininity and a compassionate, verbal nature.  A little while back on an episode of “The Tyra Show,” a scientist was talking about his research linking homosexuality with certain physical characteristics like hand shape, deepness of voice, and even the direction in which a person’s hair grows.  Um, excuse my sloping forehead and primitive jaw line, but isn’t this a lot like the nastier bits of the centuries old occult “science” of physiognomy?

Sure, the art of palmistry has its good points.  Certainly, a lot can be discerned about a man by his face.  But many classic Occult books are sprinkled with hideous ideas presented under the name of physiognomy, attributing personality traits to physical characteristics in an often racist or otherwise hateful way.  The Complete Book of Fortune, for instance, originally published in 1935 or 1936 by Associated Newspapers, LTD., describes one physiognomist’s claims that the facial angle was “much less in the case of a Negro than in that of a European,” and then goes on to name the larger facial angles as “ardent” and “moral,” the smaller facial angles as “weak” and “degenerate.”  And it gets worse.  “In atavistic or degenerate people, even in those that are met with among civilized races,” the book states, “we see heads that remind us of those of the apes or of man’s ancient forbears…When we come across an individual whose head reminds us of the skull of that ancient race which scientists term the Neanderthal, with its heavy brows, low, sloping forehead, and massive jaw, it is natural to look for a mental development of a low order.  The animal instincts we should expect to find strongly developed; the intellectual organs we should not be surprised to find poorly indicated.”  

These ideas are carried over to Palmistry, with “The Elemental Hand” shape described as the “mark of primitive races…such as the Laplanders, who inhabit Polar regions, and is a feature also of the Tartar and Slav races.”  Those with the Elemental Hand are said to be “narrow-minded” and “unintellectual.”  What garbage! 

No one wants to confront it, and no one talks about it, and so the thick dirt of racism and exclusionism that clutters our early Occult literature and traditions is swept under the crystal ball along with the bat’s eyes and frog spleens, wisely ignored and foolishly forgotten, only to pop up under the guise of modern science.  Because there has not been much in the way of a public acknowledgement of this mistaken thinking that tainted our esoteric past, such mindsets are resurfacing, not recognized for what they are, a throwback to elitist philosophies that had as little value in the past as they have today.  

No modern person in their right mind would espouse such nonsense.  Or so I thought, until I saw those talk show guests presenting their twenty-first century brand of prejudice inducing physiognomy to the masses.  Here are clearly intelligent people, clearly unaware of the danger of their theories, ignorant of the dark edge on which they teeter.  Certain physical characteristics such as a square jaw line or small hands might be prominent in some ethnicities and rare in others, and once we start assigning personality traits to these outward differences, and marking our preferences for desired and undesired traits, we might as well fire up the DNA factory and start churning out replicas of what the madman of the day considers to be the “perfect human.”

This idea is repulsive, and yet we see its forerunners on daytime television, we taste its flavor in classic Occult literature, we see its effects in our beloved Tarot.  Even the Tarot, a product of cultural blending, shows an Anglo-centric racial preference in stark contrast to the multi-cultural symbolism prevalent in the cards.  The Rider Waite deck continues to be the best selling deck of all time, the favorite of many despite the fact that there is not a single non-white face depicted on any of the 78 cards.  And the standard continues.  There are decks that break the mold, of course, like the Buckland Romani Tarot by Ray Buckland, and The Wise Woman’s Tarot by Flash Silvermoon, but by and large, most decks produced today feature white people, and white people only.

Isn’t it time we say no to racially-centric supremacy, in all its forms?  And just because it’s on the “Tyra Show,” are we really so ignorant as to entertain the idea that gay men tend to have narrow shoulders?

We are not our DNA, we are not our bodies, any more than time itself is the clockwork.  If I’m sometimes less than a perfect mate for my husband, I assure you it has nothing at all to do with my facial structure, hand shape, or genetic make-up, and I seriously doubt that Sir Elton John would be heterosexual if only he had been born with a more prominent chin. 


I denounce this stereotyping, and I reject the many veils under which ideas of racial superiority and exclusionist philosophies fester.  Today, I’m busting out a new Tarot deck, one that better reflects my identity as a magical citizen of the modern world, one that’s not drowning in Anglo-Saxon imagery.  Sorry, Rider Waite, but I’m packing you away for awhile, right next to my animal bones and vat of non-baptized children’s brand flying ointment.   


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Tarot Reflections is published by the American Tarot Association - Copyright (C) 2008 

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