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Tarot Reflections


  November 1, 2003

When Tarot Comes to Television
Sandra Thomson, CTGM

Sandra Thomson's specialty within tarot is that of an author and teacher. She is the co-author of three books (The Lovers' Tarot, Spiritual Tarot, and The Heart of The Tarot), the author of Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary, and the author of a dictionary of tarot, Pictures from the Heart, published by St. Martin's Press.

She teaches tarot classes at the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles, where she resides. Although she learned to read with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, she is very fond of the Ancestral Path and the Shining Tribe decks, and uses them for comparative or special readings. She reads online for the ATA reading networks, and privately.


Probably many of you have been watching the new series on HBO called Carnivāle.  It opens with a set of wind-tossed Tarot cards.  The World, Death, Temperance and Tower cards all expand, or open, into landscapes typical of the 1930s dustbowl, which is the environment in which the carnival travels.  (Don't bother to order Tarot cards from the program thinking you will get the deck shown in the opening scenes.  You will not.)

While I'm not certain where the entire series is going, the first episode is Tarot all the way, and spells out the Tarot or archetypal themes of the story.  Major message: nothing is as it seems.  Sub-message: This is a story about polarities, which are also so prevalent in the Tarot cards, and yes, of course, in life itself.  Not only is the story split into the two obvious camps of good and evil, but it is further polarized into pairs and twinning at every level. 

In one telling episode, the carnival, not allowed by the sheriff to open in the town where they have settled, redefines itself as a revival, subtly suggesting to viewers that there is not much difference between the two.

An important sub-theme in the series is the idea of "secrets" or secret keeping.  From family therapy, we know that the family that keeps secrets is a dysfunctional family, so we can't expect particularly good mental health from the carnivāle family.

We also know right away from the first episode that something is up when the carnival caravan bears the name Carnivāle printed on its wagons, yet begins in Oklahoma, where it is always spelled "carnival," and pronounced CAR-nih-val, as the characters themselves refer to it.  Carnivāle (Car-knee-VAL), on the other hand, is the ribald celebration that precedes Lent in South American and European Catholic countries.  Inhibitions are dropped; shadow reigns supreme.  The message that we are going to have major shadow elements to this program is loud and clear.

One of the major characters, a young man named Ben Hawkins, is an escapee from a chain gang, is reviled by his dying mother, and yet in the first episode, heals a crippled girl and is identified by the carnivāle tarot reader, Sofie, as The Magician.  Subsequent episodes reveal that Ben's major problem is that he is in the middle of an identity crisis, as are most of the other characters except in smaller, less anxiety-ridden ways.

Ben is paired, or linked by nightmares, to a minister in far away California, Brother Justin.  In this polarity pairing, we have the convict who appears to be a criminal and yet turns out to be a healer, and a minister who has some very evil aspects to him when he gets angry.  He has visions of his own, can provoke visions that cause others to see their true selves (not a pretty sight), and through his hostility and negativity, can even cause a local council member to choke and eventually to commit suicide.  A battle between good and evil, not only in the world, but inwardly in this two pair of characters.  Both Ben and Brother Justin are further linked by the mythological "dark night of the soul" experiences.  Brother Justin may well be acting out the archetype of The Devil, but that is not yet clear.

Samson, the tiny boss of the outfit—a cute dichotomy here between physical size and ruling power-claims he is only the messenger of "management," whom we have yet to see.  As Samson continues to refer to decisions made by "management," its presence becomes more and more metaphysical, and may act as an invisible god or spirit overshadowing the group.  Or is Samson also a telephath, like several prominent members of the group, since we have heard him conversing with the as yet unseen management? 

Diminutive Samson represents The Emperor, who structures the rules for, and decisions about, daily and cyclic activity of the carnival.  It is he who tells the troupe that with Ben's arrival, management has decided they will change their regular circuit and head south to Babylon, Texas.  Oh, boy, a Tower experience if there ever was one (and consider also its symbolic relationship to the Tower of Babel).  The hint of wickedness and the tie-in to evil becomes even stronger.  Now the group is acting under the influence of The Chariot card, and various members of the troupe are on their own individual quests, as well as the collective quest.  Tower experiences are ahead.

Sure enough, after their arrival in Babylon, the troupe discovers that it is inhabited by the macabre souls of dead miners, who can only come out at night—the denizens of the underworld or shadow world, lusty, unruly, and starved for attention.  By hanging (The Hanged Man?) one of the dancers in the troupe, they re-enact the whore of Babylon story as well as part of the old Hecate-Persephone myth.  She has been taken from the upper world, and now must reside in the underworld, although in this case it is permanent, rather than temporary. 

I think it is no accident that the carnival itself comes alive at night, which pairs it with the dead miners.  Both are under the influence of The Moon.  Mary K. Greer refers to The Moon card as a "dream landscape" formed by our emotions, especially those expressing our own fear that we will be unable to resolve our own dichotomies.  There are the daylight personalities of the carnival troupe and their nighttime personalities, and for the visionaries the time of visionary "reality" (often shadow "reality") and the time of non-visionary reality.  I am reminded of one of the questions on my college philosophy exam: What is real and what is really real?

Most of the characters in Carnivāle can also be tied to various Tarot cards.  Sofie is the designated Tarot card reader.  She uses the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, yet she cannot read the cards.  As a tarot reader, she is a fraud.  Sofie gets her information telepathically from her mother, Appollonia (remember that Delphi in ancient Greece was under the auspices of Apollo).  Here is a High Priestess and her handmaiden daughter, whose own identity crisis moves her to attempt to find herself away from her mother.

The blind man Lodz also is linked telepathically to Appollonia, and knows more than he speaks about.  He is identified on the HBO website as a mystic.  A secret-keeper, Lodz appears to possess a great deal of information about Ben's father and about Ben's healing gift.  He is The Hierophant and suggests to Ben that he can help him hone his gift, a suggestion Ben refuses in the early episodes of the series. 

Lila, the bearded lady, is The Empress of the group thanks to her mothering skills.  The strong man Gabriel and Ruthie—we don't know a lot about her yet—are linked as the Strength card.  The conjoined twins Alexandria and Caledonia are a perfect example of the symbiotic relationship that often occurs between The Lovers, and are, of course, another example of twinning, literally in this case.

Iris, Brother Justin's sister and cook/housekeeper, may well be The Fool in the series, although that is not yet clear.  Apparently, she has been tied to her brother for a long time.  Her life revolves around him, and at this point in the series, she seems to be relatively naive about who and what he is, without much of a strong self-identity either.  She does, however, offer some tempering of Brother Justin, and as her name suggests, she may be linked to the Temperance card (Remember the Iris flowers on the RWS Temperance card, symbolizing the Greek messenger goddess, Iris).  It remains to be seen whether Iris will soon come into her own as a mediator between Brother Justin and the heavenly realm.

Iris, is the twin or mirror of Sofie, both of whom have yet to find themselves or live their own lives.  They are tied to the decisions, and under the power of, another.  It remains to be seen how either of them will grow personally.

Then there is the crippled Jones, or "Jonesie," as Samson calls him, the head rigger of the circus, with a motley crew of workers at his command.  It is he who alerts us to the management mystery. When Jonesie enters Samson's wagon while Samson is away, he finds no one there.  Confronting Samson, he is told that if management wanted to be seen, Jonesie would have seen him.  Jonesie now believes that Samson is the true manager of the circus.  After wrestling with the decision to stay or leave, Jones decides to remain with the troupe—at least for the time being—and now enters in collusion with Samson.  He believes they share a secret.

Certainly the entire series, whatever happens, will be a representation of the Wheel of Fortune, the wheel of life and of destiny.  I write in The Heart of the Tarot that the Wheel of Fortune raises the question of whether each of us is on our true path, or going around in circles.  Certainly that is one of the ongoing questions that plague several of the prominent members of this shadow troupe.  



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