Symbolically Speaking

Exploring the symbols, metaphors and archetypal patterns found in myth, pop culture, literature, astrology, religion, psychology, Tarot, art and history--and why they matter.

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The Evolution and Re-interpretation of Symbols (or, The Coffee Tarot Leaves Me Cold)

My artist husband, Ron, and I are creating another Tarot deck. As avid coffee drinkers (especially me) who enjoy the creative benefits of the caffeine rush, we decided to bring to fruition an idea whose time had come: The Coffee Tarot.

Within 12 hours of launching our Facebook page, we had over 100 fans. But not everyone was thrilled with a java deck…

Coffee tarot banner 500

Writing craft author Jessica Page Morrell (who I happen to admire and love as a writer—I have several of her books) jumped right in with public comments. Here’s a snippet of our public dialogue (you can read it in it’s entirety at the end of this post):

I don't understand how coffee links with tarot. Am I missing some connection here?... I don't drink coffee and I believe that the tarot deck needs to be richly illustrated. Sorry to be a naysayer, but I've been familiar with the tarot since my twenties and this concept leaves me cold. Why coffee? Why not fairy tales or some mythology with rich images?

I find it interesting that some users of symbolic systems—Tarot, Kabbalah, Runes, the Bible, Alchemy, etc.— get more than a little bent out of shape when an innovator (or curious “what-if?”-er) wants to reinterpret an archetype or symbol.

Who said that symbols must remain basic, stripped-down? Why can’t they be built upon or expanded laterally to increase their reach and import? Culture (and humanity) benefits from myths, stories and symbols, so repurposing “old” ones or even creating new ones would, by extension, enrich, challenge and inform our lives.

At least, that’s how I see it.

Back to our Coffee Tarot.

So far, three images are completed in watercolor pencils, with several others sketched out, ready to manifest under my husband’s hand. I thought I’d share our thought processes with you not only as a “behind the scenes” look at what goes into thoughtful deck creation, but also as an examination of our symbols—and how they connect with more ancient and/or traditional motifs.

Let’s start with the first card that we’re calling The Bean, our version of The Fool.

Coffee Tarot 1 400

Traditionally, The Fool gets the exciting privilege of being “Zero”. He’s neither beginning nor end (or is it he’s both beginning and end?)—the one that pauses at each of the other 21 Major Arcana card’s “stations” to experience its unique archetypal energy.

Notice that The Bean is shaped like (drumroll) a ZERO!

Ron and I also consider The Fool an archetypal birth portal. This unblemished, clueless soul was baptized in Lethes as he descended into Earth for his up-close-and-personal human experience. Lo and behold, what does The Bean also look like?

A vulva!

Also known as Vesica Piscis (“Vessel of the Fish”), yoni, Mandorla, this almond shaped symbol represents female genitals and was often used as a maternity charm. It’s also echoed in the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot’s World card.

In fact, before the 16th century, statues and carvings of naked women squatting, reaching down with both hands and opening up exaggerated vulvas were found all over British and Irish architecture (even churches!). Called sheila-na-gigs, such statues and carvings represented fertility and raw female sexuality.

With creation and birth also comes dissolution and death (or in the case of Goddesses like Kali, utter destruction).

Sheila 400

The Fool must traverse these ends of human experience, both literally and metaphorically. He’ll encounter forms of creative energy, beginnings and births— as well as destructive energy, endings and death.

And yet, there’s a masculine principle symbolized by the coffee bean, too, as well as an embryonic one, because it’s actually a seed. What is a seed, really? According to the Scott Foresman Advanced Dictionary:

1. The part of most plants from which a new plant grows; an embryo and nourishment for it inside a protective coat. 2. Bulb, sprout, or any part of a plant from which a new plant will sprout 3. A source or beginning, of anything 5. Semen; sperm.

I bet you’ll never look at the humble coffee bean (or The Fool card) the same way again!

And that’s the point of cross-fertilizing symbolic systems or even re-imagining new ones to expand on those of ancient times: to create (or expand) our intuitive “shortcuts” or cache of associations for:

  • Better decision making
  • Divinatory information
  • Spiritual insight
  • Personal meaning
  • Talismans
  • Affirmations/Meditation
  • Magickal work
  • Artistic inspiration

If it makes sense to you, and it works, no one can tell you it’s wrong—for any of the above applications.

Let’s look at another card from the Coffee Tarot, The Sun.

Coffee Tarot Sun 400

At first glance, this appears to be a simple rendering. Some may even call it “cute”. But let’s deconstruct its symbols that are so unconsciously embedded, you may not have given them second thought.

One of the first things we notice is The Sun’s heavy, half-opened lids. What is this a symbol for? Someone who is sleepy—not fully awake or at optimum strength.

Then there’s the crowing rooster in the foreground, long held as a symbol for waking up, sunrise and the start of a new day. But let’s look deeper, courtesy of The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (Taschen):

Roosters—aggressive, lusty, strutting, gorgeously feathered—have engaged imagination in many ways, especially with their plangent, early-morning cries. It was an ancient belief that because evil spirits are most active in the darkness of night, the cock’s crow before sunrise dispelled demons and signaled the welcome arrival of dawn: “The bird of dawning singeth all night long; / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1.181-2). The heraldic crowing of the rooster that sounds things into existence or awareness, the fiery cockscomb reminiscent of brilliant rays and the cock’s fecunding power made it an emblem of the life-giving sun and illumination. The rooster was sacred to solar Apollo…

Here we discover that the rooster not only tangentially connects to the rising sun, but is also a sacred symbol of the Sun itself—as well as the archetypal associations that goes along with the solar disc and, indeed, The Sun card itself.

And what about that Styrofoam cup that the Sun is holding? Obviously, Styrofoam didn’t exist in ancient times, but cups did. So there’s the symbolic association of vessels, chalices and so on. But what could Styrofoam symbolize in modern times?

Well, how about “on the go” or “on the job”? After all, most people drink coffee at home from mugs or cups. Those who get coffee “to go” in paper or Styrofoam cups are usually away from home, or on their way to work, an appointment or some other destination. Not only are they “on the move”, but also in need of “staying awake”—especially if they have a long, or nighttime, drive ahead of them.

Humans tend to take the Sun (and nature) for granted, so the Styrofoam is a gentle reminder that this life-giving star rises and sets day after day, century after century, with wondrous regularity—independent of our actions or inactions—and without the need for caffeine.

Unlike many java junkies… (Ha!)

But, on a less-happy note, Styrofoam is a dangerous product that harms the environment. In fact, I believe it’s been banned at most, if not all, convenience stores. It’s indicative of the throw-away zeitgeist that gives little thought to the future cost of modern disposable lifestyles. And, arguably, this is what’s often associated with the masculine/male principle (also indicated by the Sun) in its detriment: consumerism, dominion theology, plunder and advancement at any price.

Let’s look at one more image from the Coffee Tarot, our as-yet unnamed version of The High Priestess:

Coffee Tarot HP Sketch 400

Echoing the two pillars in the RWS High Priestess card, one cylindrical storage shelf will be dark wood and the other light. The checkerboard patterned floor echoes the black/white duality theme (to learn more about the High Priestess symbolism, see my post here.) Instead of a pomegranate veil, our barista enters a curtain made of another type of seed: the coffee bean!

What kind of fruitfulness hides behind that beaded curtain? Is it a storeroom? A place for secret recipes?

There’s the rub: like the Rider-Waite-Smith High Priestess, she tells us nothing. Whether her lips are sealed or she has our back to us, we don’t know the secret she holds…or guards. Either we become initiated into the cosmic coffee shop to find out for ourselves—or we decide that some mysteries are just not worth the effort to pursue, let alone fully understand. (Thus, pushing us towards The Hierophant, the exoteric religious figure who’s more than willing to dole out dogma, pre-recorded answers and rules for living…)

As you can see, something as mundane as coffee can be used to portray complex, profound archetypal messages just as easily (easier?) than intricate, labyrinthine symbols often found in religious, spiritual or mystical art.

What about you, dear reader? Does the idea of a Coffee Tarot “leave you cold”? In your view, can mundane objects be appropriated to convey psychological, mythological and/or spiritual meaning?

What title would you give to our version of the High Priestess card? Secret Recipe? Hidden? Backroom? Mystery?

Symbol Challenge

Look around you. Pick an everyday item to be used as a theme for a hypothetical Tarot or oracle deck. How would The Fool be portrayed in your system? The Magician? The Emperor? The Hermit? Death? Do share!

Public Facebook Dialogue in Its Entirety:

Jessica: I don't understand how coffee links with tarot. Am I missing some connection here?

Coffee Tarot: Because several have already done fairytale decks, as well as decks spanning various mythos. We've already done a snow-themed Tarot (ourSnowland Deck) and my husband's working on his Cosmic Flux Tarot. I've also scripted a Christmas Tarot. We like to push the boundaries of where Tarot can go, rather than do what has been done many times before.  And, many Tarot enthusiasts LOVE coffee!

Jessica: Frankly, I'm still puzzled. I don't drink coffee and I believe that the tarot deck needs to be richly illustrated. Sorry to be a naysayer, but I've been familiar with the tarot since my twenties and this concept leaves me cold. If you'd like to erase my comments, feel free.

Coffee Tarot: No, it's OK. There are literally hundreds of Tarot decks on the market (possibly thousands). If you don't like coffee--and are more of a traditionalist when it comes to Tarot--it stands to reason you wouldn't like this deck. My work tends to draw fire from traditionalists who don't like anyone messing with the status quo. But it's my path, my calling, my passion.

Jessica: I think tea would be a more natural link, but then again, I don't think the deck should be about a substance, but rather a spiritual awakening or something similar.

Coffee Tarot: Both tea leaf reading and coffee ground readings are forms of divination. Tarot readers/enthusiasts are a diverse as any group, including our choice of beverages. Jessica, we're using "mundane" substances (like snow or coffee) to demystify Tarot and thus make the archetypes more accessible to the masses. Some people bristle at traditional iconography, and most Tarot books are dry, ponderous and irrelevant to modern living/challenges. I'm a Self Help (Mind/Body/Spirit) author above all, but I use "mundane" items/topics as a way to get my foot in the door (and crack open an otherwise closed/clouded mind). It is a means TO a spiritual awakening (hopefully). My work isn't traditional, and neither are our decks. That's the way I like it.

Jessica: I know about the grounds for divination and no one has ever called me a traditionalist until today. All good.

Coffee Tarot: Oh, by "traditionalist" I mean anyone who feels that Tarot must be "richly illustrated" with mythological, religious or fairy-tale type illustrations. ::smile::

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Janet Boyer is the author of Back in Time Tarot and Tarot in Reverse, as well as the co-creator (with her husband, artist Ron Boyer) of the Snowland Deck . She is currently working on her third and fourth Tarot books--Naked Tarot (Dodona Books, 2014) and 365 Tarot: Daily Meditations (Dodona Books, 2014). As a respected, trusted Amazon Hall of Fame/Vine Reviewer, she's penned over 1,200 published reviews that have also been featured in print magazines and other online outlets. In addition to being a Tarot teacher, author, deck creator and professional reader, Janet is also a radio host (1/2 of Tarot Bitches Radio), essayist, short story writer and homeschooling Mom. Visit Janet online at JanetBoyer.com.

Comments

  • Paula Devine
    Paula Devine Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    love the discussion, love the symbolism you both have created from the Coffee Tarot..... wow .... i think it is richly illustrated.. for me it isn't about colour but symbology and there is plenty of symbology in this Tarot Deck...... Ron is a very talented artist and together you really are an incredible team .............. looking forward to discovering your journey with you ...... xx

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    Thank you SO much, Paula! You know, sometimes we don't stop to consider the symbols that line our everyday metaphors and associations. In fact, pondering "half closed" or "heavy lidded" eyes were an eye-opener for me (no pun intended!). ;) I really appreciate your kind words about the Coffee Tarot and teh collaboration with my husband; I'll be sure to pass on your kind words to Ron! XO

  • Angie Turner
    Angie Turner Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    I've done so many readings at my kitchen tables over the years, and often sharing a cup of coffee with my read--ee, that it only seems natural to have a Coffee Tarot. This imagery speaks to me just as clearly as that tiny blue and white RWS Majors deck did, over 45 years ago now. In fact, it speaks MORE clearly, because it's easier for me and for potential clients to understand what the card is saying. The colors are soothing, too. I wasn't kidding when I said I'd longed for a Coffee Tarot for years. Glad my longing is almost over. :-)

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    Intuitive readings and coffee DO seem to have a natural affinity, don't they, Angie? One of the goals Ron and I have with our divination creations is to update the symbolism to reflect modern sensibility AND timeless archetypal wisdom. I don't think we're slaying any sacred cows with a Coffee Tarot. Maybe just milking Bessie for some fresh interpretations...? ;)

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    For me, Tarot is the Budweiser of divination, in that it was what I first experienced, and since I didn't care for how it tasted, it took me years to try anything else, so I missed out on decades of potential enjoyment.

    That said, this deck and the stories you've shared about it speak to me. Not only did I actively follow the path of the Fool in my own life, making your story about that card personally poignant, I am also a longtime devotee of Caffeina. In keeping a shrine and an e-shrine to the Steamy Lady, I have learned that she is an adaptive goddess, and very much appreciates new practices which keep her relevant in a changing world. If and when I decide to revisit Tarot, this deck will be tops on my list. I might even ask for it as a gift in anticipation of that day.

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    LOL Brilliant, Terence! If Caffeina isn't a goddes, she darned well should be. ;)

    I almost gave up on Tarot, too--until I created my own method for "getting" the cards (since the dusty Tarot tomes, and decks, that everyone recommended never spoke to me). I even wrote a book about it: http://janetboyer.typepad.com/blog/2010/09/bit-tarot-method.html Maybe you could/should try it? I have loads of samples on my blog at http://janetboyer.typepad.com/blog/2010/09/bit-tarot-method.html Tarot holds some amazing revelations, but it can be a perplexing tool when following "old school" tutelage...

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    Oops, sorry for the repeat URL, Terence. http://janetboyer.typepad.com/blog/bit-tarot/ is the correct URL for all the BIT Snapshot exercises I post. :)

  • Paula Tague
    Paula Tague Wednesday, 28 May 2014

    Coffee's not my beverage of choice, but I don't really see a Dr Pepper deck coming out any time soon. I am imaginative enough, however, to see these steaming mugs as hot chocolate! Having said that, I've gotta add that there are tons of decks out there that don't speak to me--and I don't buy them. It's that simple. If this one works for me, I'll be on the waiting list. If not, I wanna be FIRST on the list for your Christmas deck!

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Monday, 09 June 2014

    Thank you, Paula! We have so many ideas, but it's really a time thing--especially since Ron has a full-time (non-artsy) job. ;)

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