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Asking the Oracle

by Ali Hibbs on January 19, 2011

Looking to the 11th and 21st cards of the Tarot deck to consider what the 11th year of the 21st century may have in store

ELEVEN IS MY FAVORITE number. I like how the ones stand proudly next to each other, like a happy little couple, simultaneously sovereign and codependent. I was born on the first day of the 11th month. In numerology, my “life path” is 11—a Master Number related to things like nervous energy, excessive idealism and spiritual illumination. For reasons I no longer remember, I always make a wish when I notice that the clock says 11:11, and I once read somewhere that seeing 11:11 a lot means that your life is about to change. So, it makes a certain kind of sense that this particular New Year prompted me to dust off my neglected Tarot deck and see what 2011 might hold.
Tarot is often quickly dismissed as foolish or heretical, but it is actually based on commonly accepted psychological archetypes, ideas that were made most famous by renowned psychologist C.G. Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Most of us understand archetypal conceptions: the wise man, the gilded hero, the old crone or young maid. Fairy tales are full of them. We all inhabit certain archetypes at different times in our lives. Tarot uses these common ideas to help the reader consider their situation from a broader, symbolic perspective, allowing them to depersonalize emotional issues and arrive at more honest conclusions. Some would say that the symbolism in Tarot can help to unlock the inner psyche, others believe it’s a point of access for interpreting a collective subconscious, and still others simply consider it a form of interactive prayer with the spiritual being of their choice. There are many ways to consider the Tarot, very few of which are likely to be wrong. (Personal note: I try to approach my oracles with a certain amount of spiritual irreverence, unabashed appreciation and few prior assumptions.)
“I don’t have to have faith; I have experience,” an unapologetic Campbell said of spiritual belief. Stressing that some forms of understanding must be sought out and experienced directly, Campbell coined the phrase “Follow your bliss.” He said he was inspired by a term he came across in the Upanishads denoting the point where one breaks out of their comfort zone and leaps into the abyss of the unknown. In Tarot, that archetypal idea is known as the Fool. It is the first (or last) card in the Major Arcana.
The Major Arcana is the name for the 22 unsuited trump cards in the Tarot deck: the Lovers (VI), Death (XV) and the Moon (XVIII), for example. They typically exert more influence or hold more universal meaning than the 56 suited cards of the Minor Arcana, which became the basis for modern playing cards. The Fool (0) was the only trump to make it into the modern playing deck, appearing as the Joker.
Tarot works through chance and intuition, as well as imagery, so the way in which one can use the cards is surprisingly flexible. More intricate readings typically reveal much greater nuance and complexity. Wanting a general overview for 2011, I looked at the 11th and 21st cards of the Major Arcana to see what symbolic significance they might hold for the 11th year of the 21st century.
The 11th card is located between the Wheel of Fortune (X) and the Hanged Man (XII). It’s called Justice (XI) in most traditional Western decks. (In some decks it’s called Kharma due to concerns that the idea of justice has become too associated with our manmade judicial systems). Upon further investigation, I found that other versions of Tarot (i.e., virtually all of them before the 20th century) show a different card in the 11th position. Strength (XIII) and Justice have been reversed. Unsure how to proceed, I put both versions of them in front of me and stared for a while before realizing that there was another 11:11 right in front of me. Intuition and synchronicity, therefore, seemed to dictate that I delve into the meaning of both cards. (It is worth noting that Justice and Strength are two of only four virtue cards found in the Major Arcana and that they closely mirror the cardinal virtues of the Christian church.)
The Justice card is strongly associated with the idea of facing up to the consequences of one’s actions, something that seems especially relevant in light of recent national events. Economic calamity, the BP oil spill and recent events in Tucson have forced us to take a closer look at the way we handle our material wealth, treat our natural resources and communicate with each other. While the Justice card may feel a bit like punishment and severity (perhaps even austerity), it’s actually an admonition to regain balance through objective reasoning. This card is no emotional plea; it is about stone-cold rationality. For example, because our limited natural resources are an unavoidable fact, thoughtless and unlimited consumption cannot continue without serious repercussions. Stone cold. There is no ethical right or wrong implied here, only the suggestion that we can mitigate the negative effects of unthinking action by stopping and really looking at things dispassionately and honestly. Letting go of harmful habits, ceasing wasteful behaviors, and employing rationality of thought rather than emotional reactivity are all suggested by the Justice archetype.
Strength, the original 11th card, has also been called Desire. It actually complements Justice beautifully. The major theme here is one of self-control. Conquering our lower desires, such as the need for ultimately unsatisfying things like immediate gratification, influence or revenge, is considered necessary to make proper decisions and achieve worldly success. There is a strangely satisfying suggestion that the whole range of human possibilities must be experienced before one can be completely free from desire, but it is that ultimate liberation that is the prevailing idea in this card. The lion, a symbol of solar energy, is often depicted in the Strength card. In this case, the lion, which must be tamed, could also denote the actual concept of solar energy as a possible strength. (There are typically multiple levels of meaning in any given card.) We already have the means to solve many of the problems we have created for ourselves, such as the ability to “tame” the energy of the sun and make use of other alternatives to wasteful and nonrenewable sources. While Justice suggests changing our course of action, Strength seems to be comfortingly implying that we have the necessary means to do so, both internally and externally.
The World (XXI) is the final numbered card in the Major Arcana and arguably the 22nd, as the Fool represents 0. (Another double 11!) It is also related to balance, but it implies the actual attainment of that balance. Although perfection and completion are key ideas, it doesn’t necessarily imply that perfect balance can be attained in the coming year—it is, after all, the number of the entire century—but it may be reminding us that balance is both possible and desirable. The omega position of the World in the deck is also, finally, suggestive of brand-new beginnings. Once balance is achieved, the Fool will once again leap off into the ever-waiting abyss and the cycle will begin anew.