Morgan P. Stevens
In part of his ongoing column,
"Tarot" No. 1
The student of the occult is met with a dearth of useful information. That is not to say that there is a want for more treatment in these areas—quite the contrary. The curious nascent is rather overwhelmed with the amount of material at their disposal, with so little of it proving to be nutritive—and what promises to be, is occluded for the sake of exploitation.
Occult knowledge is occult by nature; it inherently shrouds itself, and does not need assistance in remaining secreted away. Were it otherwise the study would rightly be considered exoteric. Alexander Ford has noted elsewhere that there is an innate difference between reading a book, and understanding a book. Access to information does not preclude its exploitation. In fact, obscurement for the sake of commodification often catalyzes abuse.
Gareth Cross thankfully recognizes the need to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ that seems to shadow tarot. Mystic systems, like Kabballah, or the desires of private interest groups can claim no total jurisdiction over the obsequious tarot cards. The symbolic associations depicted in the tarot are neither wholly congruous, nor are they “rightly decipherable” since the origins of the cards are heavily disputed.
As such it becomes imperative to approach tarot, and its imagery, as natural derivatives. The ancient character of the cards’ mixed iconography attests to the Man’s mutable consciousness, all of which originates as a matter of consequence from his drive toward primacy, and survival. An earnest ethnography of the tarot, and its symbols frees the student from muddy extrapolations and free-association.
The symbolic qualities of the chariot are expressed through two fundamental channels, both of which are native to its oldest attestations. The first is a yogic aspect. It deals with self-mastery and with warfare in a nominal sense. The second is a divinatory aspect, which has its roots in broader cosmological symbolism. To gain a more proper grasp of the meaning of the chariot, one must understand both dimensions to be inextricably co-mingled with one another. They are not separate, but rather, form a reflexive pairing—the physical apprehension of the thing itself, and the metaphysical intuition of what the thing represents. Our sense of the one is always informed by the other; neither have primacy.
The chariot was developed by those people who first domesticated the horse; being native to the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Though it revolutionized warfare, its design was relatively simple: Two spoked wheels harbored a carriage and two riders—a warrior with ranged armament, and his driver. Two horses were yoked to the vessel, directed by the will of the pilot. The earliest attestations of the chariot in the material record, then, are attributed to the Sintashta Culture—a group related to Corded Ware Culture— in roughly 2000 B.C; in other words, peoples native to the northeastern extremities of ancient Mesopotamia.
Some scholars are inclined to point to the Sumerian war-cart or Neolithic portage wagons as analogous to the chariot. However, the chariot is just as ill-suited for the demands of the cart, as the cart is to the demands of the chariot—right down to their very form and function. Neolithic wheels like those attached to the earliest wagons were fashioned from the discoid sections of felled tree-trunks that were crudely wrought into a circular shape. The disk-like wooden wheel is neither maneuverable enough, nor physically sound enough, to handle the stresses of warfare. The force of two galloping horses, together with the chicanery required of the vehicle, would evidently have bucked the riders from the platform. Without the shock distribution afforded by the wheelwright’s cunning (and of other, related craftsmen involved in its fashioning), the marksman’s aim could hardly have adapted; the chariot would never have had the effect on warfare that it did. There is therefore little evidence to endorse the supposed evolution of the trading cart to an engine of war, which so many modern scholars are eager to supply.
What it was, that provided the wheelwright his original inspiration for the form of the spoked wheel, is a difficult question. There is a tendency to try and separate the physical imperatives behind the form of the wheel from metaphysical imperatives. That is to say, the wheel is an object that can arguably be derived from a materialistic impetus. Did primitive man observe in the exposed trunk of a tree that its shape could be rolled, and applying some ingenuity to reduce its weight and material, refine it to a circular form? Some doubt may be in order, as the earliest wheels were potter’s wheels. In contrast to popular belief, progress is traditionally rendered by working in accord with natural principles— by a reflexive process. Technological innovation is, for the symbolically-minded man of antiquity, a kind-of link in the chain between man and his proclivities for both the material, and the magico-religious. One does not give birth to the other, but rather, both modalities lend form to one another. Therefore, one might argue similarly that the wheel is cosmically self-evident.
Regard of the motion and shape of the heavenly bodies delivers the notion of the wheel to the careful observer. The close connection between the form of the wheel, and celestial iconography is conspicuous; and it’s unwise to explain away the symbolic concurrence of the specific form of the wheel, and those cosmogonies, as either entirely coincidental—or as later developments. We can easily observe that the eight-spoked wheel is assimilated to the octogram; that is, to the equilateral rays of Venus, to the circumpolar constellations—like Ursa Minor and Major, which form the hooked cross—as well as to the sun, and its varied iconography. It’s the solar association, of these, which provides the clearest avenue for interrogation, as Indo-European rock art was dominated by motifs of beasts, gods, wheels, and other weapons of war, reflecting these same celestial figurations.
The domestication of the horse fundamentally changed and elevated man’s position in the world. It cannot be understated for our purposes that the chariot is only realized by first yoking the horse. No other beast—like those native equids which pulled Mesopotamian war-carts—physically compared to the horse, which exclusively roamed the Pontic-Caspian steppe. As a matter of fact, the Proto-Indo European word ‘yuj,’ meaning “to yoke, fasten or harness (horses to a chariot)” supplies us the etymological root for the word Yoga. The chariot was a weapon that required a number of conditions to be met, in order to conceive, invent, maintain, and field—of which only the nomadic warrior-elite of the Caucasian steppe could have possibly satisfied. As such, the chariot and its symbolic aspects are inextricably rooted in the world view of those people, and their mythologies. The Sanskritic Vedas provide the earliest surviving record of those people, although they are still centuries removed.
We may not have specific, categorical knowledge of Proto-Indo-European religious beliefs, or any spelled-out record of their practices in warfare. However cross-cultural study of their descendants, and of relevant Indo-European traditions, does shed the light of inevitability into that otherwise dim corner of interest. Among some of the most well-documented aspects of warfare in Proto-Indo-European culture is the tradition of the koryos—or the youthful warband.
As a rite of passage, temporarily outcast teens formed the koryos. They underwent an initiatory ceremony sometime around the winter solstice—in which they pledged themselves not only to the fated leader of their band, but also to the respective god of the warband, whose Vedic parallel was Rudra. This leader was elected through a simple drawing of lots, or the casting of dice. Afterward, they became terrible, liminal figures; bound by a sympathetic magic to bestial qualities. In exile, a member of the koryos’s chief possession was an animal’s hide—a wolf’s, dog’s, or a bear’s. While the particulars of the koryos tradition are not necessarily germane to the chariot, the spiritual significance of those progenitor warrior-cults will not be lost on scholars familiar with various Nordic, and Hellenic traditions. What’s important to understand, is that the young men of the koryos ritualistically carried out the same tasks of their patron deity in the formula elucidated by Mircea Eliade.
The koryos raided and plundered, from the time of their initiation at the winter solstice, up until the summer solstice—or, to apply astrological terminology—from the season of Capricorn until the season of Cancer. It may initially seem peculiar that the warband would operate through the colder portion of the year as opposed to raiding in full throughout the warmer months. However, there is an underlying rationale. The summer solstice marked the waning summer grain harvest. We moderns tend to associate autumn with the cessation of harvest, largely because of our reliance upon winter grains—which are reaped in the autumn. But, this was not necessarily the case with Bronze-Age, or even Iron-Age man; who by contrast frequently relied on summer grains and fruits. That fact seems to partly account for some of the ritual phenomena recorded by Frazer, noted in The Golden Bough, like the Attican buphonia, which signaled the end of the threshing season. Similarly, Hellenic astrologers attributed a moist and stormy quality to the first decan of Cancer because that time naturally marked the period of flooding throughout Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. The natural blooming that began during the spring (Aries) season reached its apogee during the stormiest portions of Cancer season. The commensurate resurgence of wild grasses and summer grains brought about the return of grazing animals; of cattle, sheep, horses, and effectively heralded the return of their mystical, bellicose masters.
Both Cancer and Capricorn are perhaps best understood as a totality, rather than two disparate entities; the gate of life in Cancer, and the gate of death in Capricorn form a single cosmological picture. On the one hand, the summer solstice brings life—in mature grains, and ripe fruits. On the other hand, that precise solstitial moment marks the ‘death’ of the sun; the point at which it will decline in the sky throughout the remainder of the year—much in the same way as the raiding koryos return in the winter. Perhaps we have long misapprehended what it was that Porphyry meant, in describing the Cancerian ‘gate’ as the Gate of Man. It stands to this line of reasoning that the Babylonians would figure the height of summer as the regency of their pestilential god of the underworld, Nergal.
Astrological interpretations seem to neglect the historical significance of Cancer as a sign of the ancestor—of the Latin gens—which was rooted in the settling of the Mediterranean. One instance of the apparently older, unalloyed form of Cancer as an ancestral symbol is preserved in the myths of a sorcerous, crab-clawed, race of smiths known to the Greeks by many names—among them, Daktyloi. Also called the Cabieri, these people were an invading race who fathered the Cretans. According to some versions of the myth the Cabieri were also called the “Curetas,” a word that bears striking phonetic resemblance to koryos, and which is the etymological root of the name “Cretan.” These settlers brought with them knowledge of many crafts including metallurgy and divination, and curiously, as if to solidify their descent from that far-ancient Proto-Indo-European warrior-culture, Pausanias explicitly identified them as being of ‘Hyperborean’ stock.
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