Interview With Christine Payne-Towler – Part IV
by Bonnie Cehovet
Christine came under my radar in the “way back when” days of Tarot-L, when the excitement was during the midnight hours, where the “names” slugged it out. Since then, Christine has published the seminal work “The Underground Stream”, designed the online Tarot reading program for www.Tarot.com, founded the Tarot University Online, and began publishing a monthly newsletter entitled Arkletters.
Christine’s focus is on promoting the understanding and study of Tarot from the point of view of its astro-alpha-numeric content, in particular its roots in the esotericism and magic of the Renaissance. She wants to make sure that the original impulse that birthed the Tarot is not lost to the twenty-first century. Her latest project is a Tarot deck and companion book (The Tarot of the Holy Light), being made in conjunction with her partner, Michael Dowers. This could be the very first truly new Continental Tarot deck to be published in the twenty-first century.
Christine is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Association of Tarot Studies conference in France, where she will be presenting her latest research in a talk entitled “Alchemy, TheoSophia and Tarot”. She will also be introducing her new deck, with the companion book to appear shortly thereafter.
For more information on Christine, and to read the body of her work, go to http://noreah.typepad.com/about.html.
BC: This question is really for Michael. How did you become involved in this project, and how did the artwork evolve?
MD: From the very first days I met Christine she was talking about and showing me these images she had collected of alchemical engravings from the 1600s. These intrigued me right off the bat as I've always had an interest in old black and white engravings and what priceless collage material they could potentially be. As a student of art and art history these engravings reminded of the work that the great surrealist Max Ernst did and always wanted to try my own collages using this medium. One day Christine and I sat down and talked about what visual elements could be used to create a tarot card and I sat down using PhotoShop and whipped out the design for the Devil card. We were quite delighted with the results so I went on to another card, and then another, and before you know I was hooked and completely compelled to do the whole deck. 4 1/2 years later we had a tarot deck.
After all is said and done, this experience was extremely intuitive for me. As I went on creating each card I became more and more sensitive to the material. One by one the images were being created from a deeper place inside me. The last couple of years it seems the cards were created by an invisible hand that pointed in certain directions. Many times I felt like an empty vessel, as though someone was watching over me, guiding my hand and my thoughts to create a finished image.
CPT: Let this be stated for the record; I didn't have to give Michael a lot of suggestions or dictate his every artistic decision -- far from it! I set him up with a few references that I know to be trustworthy, and I also gave him a few rules to follow in the course of framing his ideas. But he's the one who burned the midnight oil, poring over my library of magical art to find the ideas he wanted to portray. More often than not, I was the last one to know what would be on the face of the card!
Michael's background makes him a perfect appreciator of the flash-card method of idea delivery. I have reasonably good taste and I know what I like, but he actually understands how to take a flat image and give it depth, how to express motion, how to lead the eye and arrange the elements of a larger thought so a person could comprehend the nuances. There are images in this deck that make my heart skip a beat every time I see them! And of course, he was standing in the footsteps of the esoteric master-artists of the Renaissance, who collectively changed our understanding of what can be conveyed through the sacred image. This whole pack is largely an homage to their visionary creativity.
That being said, there are aspects of these cards that clearly betray Michael's personal journey as an artist, and the unique aesthetic he developed during his years as a book editor in the cartooning and graphic novel world. Certain things he tailored to my preferences, for example the incredibly lush palette of colors which please me so much to gaze upon and fall into. But at every level of these compositions, Michael's visionary imagination is at work, making a unique magical world for users to enter and move around within. There's a thousand hours in every card, some many more. Every pixel has been laboriously inspected and corralled to make these collages come together so smoothly. If admirers of this pack take the art of the Tarot of the Holy Light as seriously as people have done with the Waite or Crowley packs, they will find layers of fascination and instruction hidden in these images.
BC: What were the rules that Christine gave you, that you used to assemble the cards?
1) No human faces on the numbered Pips. They represent Natural Laws. We could have angels, animals, the "hand of God", but not people. Also, accent on the geometry of the numbers instead of plucking people's emotional strings all the time. I wanted a quality of objectivity or detachment to prevail, at least in the Pips.
2) Something unique for the reader to fix on if a card is reversed compared to being upright.
3) Please minimize the horrible chrome orange or bloody red colors. I have an aversion to Tarot cards full of stress and carnage, which I discovered after I bought the Solleone Tarot and had to give it away because of all the blood! I want my 'holy blood' to stay within the Grail Chalice, please! This also connections with the reason I dislike the Sola Busca Tarot as well -- too much testosterone, thank you very much!
4) The Fool can stand at the front or the back of the sequence (he does both), but the Magus starts the Alphabet at #1.
BC: You and Michael very graciously allowed me to view a few of the cards from your upcoming deck. Where did you get the inspiration for the color scheme that you used?
CPT: I wanted to look into the cards and see Great Nature, so that was one of the design criteria. We happen to live in a veritable paradise along the Columbia River in America's Pacific Northwest, so watching the seasons change out our windows provides daily inspiration. Our soundtrack is birdsong and farm animals, so we live in an ambiance that is reminiscent of the less-developed times and circumstances of the Reformation era. And of course, Michael was collaging with ingredients derived from the landscapes that appeared in the Alchemical illustrations, which provided a range of seasons, times, and animals.
BC: Let’s talk about the Hermit! I love the Sun as the lamp, and the red robe the Hermit is wearing! How were these choices made, and what is encircling the Hermit’s robe at his feet?
CPT: This card is a perfect example of Michael including more in the images than he was consciously aware of. The creature circling the Hermits feet is the terrestrial Leviathin, the worm or water-serpent of material time. There are actually two Leviathins, the terrestrial (female) one being associated with the Serpent of Genesis. Overhead is her mate, the Aeonic serpent called the "teli", marked out by the constellation Draco. This constellation surrounds the ecliptic pole in the sky, having stars in all 12 signs of the Zodiac. The Hermit is in communication with both the spirit of time and the spirit of transcendence as a result of his yogic cultivation.
MD: It was my goal to try and go beyond the typical stereotypes of the tarot, to find new combinations of images to tell the stories of the cards. This whole pack is about the Light, so using a sun instead of a lamp helped me show the old man offering the world a new millennium of cosmic light. As to the red robe -- he's a yogi and has accumulated a lot of life force through his practice. Don't mistake the white hair for a loss of vitality, far from it!
BC: The Ten of Disks follows the Tree of Life graphic. What is the reasoning behind this?
CPT: I'll have to leave the question of "reasoning" to Michael, as in my memory he didn't show me this image until it was nearly complete. However, it looked perfectly natural to me, because 10 is Malkuth, complete manifestation of the Kabalistic Tree. Also the suit of Disks as a whole represents what the Kabbalists called "Asiyyah, the world of Action", the place where all the ramifying consequences of movement in the upper sworlds are registered in time, space and matter. A phrase sticks in my mind from a childhood TV commercial -- in the 10 of Disks, "you get what you paid for".
MD: I was trying to look through the older forms and see what's on the other side of them. Past versions weren't discarded entirely -- you'll see echoes of older packs all through The Tarot of the Holy Light. In Christine's library I've seen the Tree extended to show it's expanse over the 4 Worlds of the Kabbalists. I was trying to take that idea one step further, and make every station of the Tree a world of its own. That included a search for symbols to express the character of the Planets. Finally there was the issue of spreading the rainbow across the descending Tree. That took me several nights of pondering!
BC: The Three of Cups is very graceful with the center heart, and the three golden cups. How did that come about?
This is a fragment of a larger engraving from Jacob Boehme, found in Theosophische Wercke, published in Amsterdam, 1682. The title of the engraving is Christi Testamenta, and its a meditation on Boehme's cardinal theme of 'turning wrath into Love'. Michael lifted out the upper half of the image, where the Divine Heart assumes the cross of matter, emanating through the descending triangle of Light (the heavenly Sophia). What you don't see on the card is the lower half of the image, as the central shaft of the cross penetrates down through an upside-down heart inside an upward-ponted triangle of flames. At its base the shaft takes the form of the trunk and roots of a tree which sinks into the earth and buries itself in the globe of earthy condensation. Meanwhile two branches rise from the trunk to support the two winged, one-eyed vessels that catch the effulgence pouring out of the Divine Heart. The downward-looking eye on the left represents the practical and unemotional Mother Pillar of the Kabbalah tree, whereas the upward-looking eye with the tear trickling out represents the repentant and devotional consciousness of the Father Pillar. Michael positioned the cups so that they would cradle the two eyes and the Dove.
This diagram is meant to illustrate how the judgmental Wrath of the Old Testament Jehova (the fire triangle rising from the earthy side) is penetrated and healed by the descending Light of the Logos (Christ/Sophia, symbolized as the Dove). The Dove fearlessly enters the Wrath and stills it, quenching any drama held in the Pillars and bringing the opposites into harmony at last. The rising vine ripe with grapes is reminiscent of the self-fulfilling Sacrifice which must be accomplished anew in every heart. According to the Protestant Theosophers, when the Triangle of Light (Love) fully penetrates and absorbs the Triangle of Fire (Wrath), we will have "a new heaven and a new earth", both personally and collectively. We talk about these ideas more fully in the book for The Tarot of the Holy Light, as this theme is at the heart of the Spiritual Alchemy the Boehme taught and which spread through the Rosicrucian, Masonic and Martinist Lodges of Europe thereafter.
BC: What do you want people to know about the Continental Tarots, and why you are bringing this tradition back into the mainstream?
CPT: The Continental Tarots are the vessel that the first 500 years of Tarot mysticism was cultured in. We moderns are not unique in our projection of spiritual, psychological and emotional meanings onto the cards, far from it. As soon as the 78-card pack appeared in Europe, people began making correspondences to it and using it as a "philosophical machine", in the tradition of the Llullian Wheels, astral charts, Geomantic oracles, and all the rest.
What is particularly striking about the Tarot of the Holy Light is that it represents the spontaneous upwelling of authentic Christian gnosis that is devoted to the Divine Feminine (in the person envisioned as the Holy Spirit). In my opinion the Tarot as a whole is the testimony of the Religion of the World as practiced by the polymorphous-perverse Catholic and Protestant magi. These devoted scholars refused to let go of the Goddess whether She is envisioned as Anima, Mother of God, Sophia, Soror Mystica, Divine Lady, Schekhihah, Matronit, or any other form or designation. The Tarot of the Holy Light is just one attempt to vision forth this larger worldview. Hopefully, it will make the job easier for those who come after me to delve into the times and worldview with greater confidence.
To state this case systematically, I recently made a two-hour set of DVD's with Linda Marson's Global Spiritual Studies to talk about the emergence of the Goddess in the traditional Tarots. I wanted to research the body of ideas that produced icons like the Priestess, Empress, Strength, Temperance, the World and the Queens in the European psyche. The two lectures are:
a) the formative ground of western civilization before 1400 (the date of the first pack of cards with female figures found in Europe), and, b) the proliferation of magic imagery after 1400, showing the this older Goddess mysticism spilling into Tarot packs.
I didn't spend a lot of time on the details of Boehme's unique synthesis of Sophianic occult mysticism during those two presentations, since their goal is to address the larger context wherein Protestant Sophianics appeared. The whole remarkable story is shared in the book supporting The Tarot of the Holy Light.
BC: What final words do you have for our readers?
CPT: There is one final thing I'd like folks to know. When I first discovered the Tarot, there were very few books around to explain it. There was so little on the art of divination that I used these instructions for years: "Ask a question while you are shuffling, throw out a few cards, and then make up a reason why these cards came up." Truthfully there's actually more to work with on the faces of The Tarot of the Holy Light than there were in the first decks I learned from!
Therefore the cards and LWB that come with it are simple and don't require that one purchase the book. One will see the standard numbers, suits and titles, plus Michael's luminous and evocative illustrations. Each card is supplied with simple zodiacal references that explicate the Cosmos of the pack (Zodiac, Planets and Elements) across the three populations -- the Trumps, the Royals and the Pips. This is a fine framework for a contemporary Tarot reader to work with in the divinatory style of our times. Also, people who have my first book The Underground Stream will have a head start to the deeper implications of these cards. Over time the user can incorporate the astrology, plus bring their understanding of Number Theology, Kabbalah and Elemental Magic to bear.
Nevertheless, all of that can also be easily ignored, due to the fine iconic statements made through the images. Michael has done a masterful job of conjuring a magical world full of energies, emotions, transformations and awakenings, which should offer the sensitive user plenty of fuel for their divinatory instincts. I'm not inclined to burden the world's Tarot-card intuitives with a complicated constellation of esoteric considerations right out of the box! I hope people, find themselves attracted to the Tarot of the Holy Light for it's beauty and usefulness in the context of a reading, because that's the proof of the pack's practical value right there.
Nevertheless, there is a deeper esoteric paradigm embedded in these cards, which allows the Tarot of the Holy Light to calculate and render remedies from the discipline of Spiritual Alchemy developed by Paracelsus and brought to a mystic peak by Jacob Boehme. I have argued in other places that Tarot has been one of the tools that the Rosicrucians, Martinists and Masons have cultivated for centuries, long before Etteilla re-profiled it for the masses. The research done for this pack of cards has brought this material up to the surface again, particularly while meditating on the art inspired by the writings of Jacob Boehme. This is a very big and deliciously esoteric subject, absolutely not suitable for treatment in a Little White Book! Therefore, the full discussion and explication of the theurgic astral-medicine paradigm that invisibly supports The Tarot of the Holy Light will be found in its accompanying book, which is soon to emerge.
Don't get me wrong, I think everybody who enjoys this Tarot should also buy the book, hands down That's where you'll find the full treatment of every card , which the regular user will benefit greatly from. Plus I unveil a little-known but incredibly influential Goddess-focused magical Christian theosophy that has come forward from the 1600's. This rich complex of astral-alchemical archetypes has doubtless contributed to Tarot's interior universe of meanings, at least within the Lodges of the 16- and 1700's. But, as they say, there's more! (Smiley) Here's a clue to tantalize your readers, Bonnie. There is a detail in the progression of the Pips from 1 to 10 that people who are astrologically and/or Kabalistically attuned will notice and wonder about. It will be invisible to many, but glaring to a certain group who will trip over it and wonder. At the point a user of this Tarot stumbles upon this detail, when it starts to intrigue their mind and stir up questions, then it's time to get the book if they haven't already. That will be the point to investigate the Paracelcian Astral Remedies that are the secret powerhouse of this pack.
I want to thank both Christine and Michael for their time and effort in bringing us a better understanding of the Continental Tarot. I can’t wait to work with both the deck (which is gorgeous!) and the companion book!
Go back to Part I, Part II, or Part III.
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.