Tarot and folklore expert Alexandra Walsh explores the fascinating link between fairytales and the Tarot pack
Once upon a time there was a beautiful pack of cards. They lived in a wooden box that was lined with soft red velvet. Each card was painted with a different picture. Some were of girls, some of boys, others showed kings and queens, brave knights and clever princesses, wise old men and women, witches and wizards. On others were fearsome creatures: dragons, wolves, monsters and demons, while some held wise and friendly creatures: mermaids, fairies, elves and unicorns. But this was no ordinary pack of cards, this pack of cards was magical. Each card was able to speak, but only if the person using them knew how to listen…
A fairytale begins with the traditional setting in a time and space which holds no boundaries — once upon a time — and ends with the promise of hope — and they lived happily, ever after. These stories are as old as time. They are myths and legends that can be found throughout the world, but which over the years have been reduced to anodyne tales that are often dismissed as unimportant stories for children. Yet, once these stories were the very fabric of society. They were moral lessons drawing on the history and culture of the locality; oral histories passed down through the generations, warning against vices, while also offering hope against diffi culties and showing that bravery and, occasionally, cunning can be used to protect and improve your situation in life.
However, these oral histories were slowly eroded as organised religion swept across the world. It was not until Charles Perrault published his fi rst written book of fairytales in Paris in 1697 under the title Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé, which was translated into English in 1729 as Histories or Tales of Past Times, that fairytales were once again considered suitable reading matter. Perrault’s book featured Mother Goose among other tales, which he had collected over the years and finally committed to paper.
In 1823, fairytales began receiving more serious recognition with the publication of The Household Tales by The Brothers Grimm, two German scholars. This was a selection of authoritative folk and fairytales gathered by the Grimms over a number of years. In May 1835, the favourability of the fairytale was enhanced again by the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, although these, unlike Perrault and the Grimms, were largely written by Andersen himself.
Fairytales and folklore
While these stories are collectively entitled ‘fairytales’, the majority of them do not actually feature fairies. Instead they contain a variety of characters that offer a glimpse into past social conditions, beliefs and the way people viewed themselves and their surroundings. Jack and the Beanstalk, alongside other tales, has now been reduced to pantomime, yet the original story was far darker. Jack and his mother are starving, they have to sell their cow, their only source of income, in order to pay their cruel landlord a large and disproportionate rent on their shack. Jack’s laziness and stupidity leads them further into trouble when he trades the cow for magic beans, and this is where the misunderstandings begin.
When taken at face value, the magic beans are something only a child can believe in, but if seen as an allegory, they are metaphorical beans being sown in Jack’s mind to make him realise he must rely on his wits, intelligence and ability to work hard in order to survive. The giant can be seen as troubles to be overcome, and the singing harp as Jack’s challenge to understand and combat his laziness. His chopping down of the beanstalk causing the giant to crash to the earth and die at the end can be seen as Jack defeating his problems and moving into a brighter future. Stories of plants growing to the heavens are known around the world: in an asian story, a limb from Buddha’s bo tree grows to the sky, and the ash tree Yggdrasill reaches the heavens in the Nordic Prose Edda. Late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim views Jack and the Beanstalk as “a tale of a pubertal boy’s separation from the ‘infantile paradise’ and his attainment of masculine maturity”. In other words, it is anything but an anodyne children’s tale. The same can be said of all the iconic fairytales: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Little Prince, Goldilocks and The Three Bears, Cinderella, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid and many more. Each has its origins in folklore and if compared to other tales from around the world, the key themes crop up again and again.
Fairytales and the Tarot
By viewing the leading fairytale characters as archetypes, it was not such a leap when in 1998, Isha and Mark Lerner combined fairytales with the Tarot to create their Inner Child cards. Since then, other Tarot packs based on the archetypes in fairytales have emerged: the Fairy Tale Tarot by Lisa Hunt, as well as the Fairy Tale Tarot created by Karen Mahony, Alex Ukolov and illustrated by Irena Triskova. Each deck draws on different folk stories and each has its own interpretations of the most resonant archetypes.
In both Lisa Hunt’s and Mahony, Ukulov and Triskova’s Tarot decks, Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother are used to represent the Empress in the Major Arcana, while in the Inner Child pack, she is used as the archetype for The Moon. Both these Majors epitomise femininity, but at different stages of the female psyche. The changing face of Cinderella in these cards also incorporates the old pagan beliefs of the triple goddess; the girl, the woman and the crone, an interpretation of the different faces of femininity which can be found in Celtic, Greek and Roman mythology, pagan, heathen, wiccan and many other traditions.
However, using the fairytale icons in the Tarot does more than just re-establish the tales and their archetypes back into their correct place in history, folklore and literature. It also has the positive effect of opening the mysteries of the Tarot to a wider audience. Not only does it appeal to those wishing to nurture their inner child, the familiarity of the iconography removes some of the superstition which often surrounds the Tarot. The majority of the stories featured in the cards will be familiar to users, so there is an immediate bond. The tales are usually those learned during childhood so even the more challenging of cards — Death, The Tower, The Devil, The Five of Swords, The Eight of Cups etc — can be viewed in a less threatening way.
The card most people dread during a reading is the Death card; the blank-faced shadowy Grim Reaper is a source of fear for many. However, by presenting this card as Sleeping Beauty (Inner Child cards), Godfather Death from the Brothers Grimm (the Fairy Tale Tarot) and Beauty and the Beast (called Transformation in Hunt’s Fairy Tale Tarot) the meaning of the card becomes far more apparent. Death is a symbol of change, of mourning the end of a stage in life, and of letting go of outdated and possibly detrimental or addictive situations in order to move forward.
Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed and sleeps for 100 years, is a clear indication of the transformation that must take place when the Death card appears. It shows that, although you may be affected by circumstances beyond your control, something has ended. Sleeping Beauty is transformed from a girl to a woman who is awakened by her handsome prince. Changes occur, often against our will, but ultimately, if a cycle has ended, like Sleeping Beauty’s childhood and her curse, then it’s time to acknowledge those changes, grieve for the part of life that has ended and move on.
The change in appearance of the Beast to a handsome prince reinforces this image. Once again, truth is revealed and a transformation takes place; the ending of a curse and his life as a beast, to the hope of new beginnings and love. While the integrity of the character of Death in the tale of Godfather Death indicates the honesty we must all face when presented with the realisation that something has ended and we must have the courage to let go of the past.
The minor Arcana
While the fairytale archetypes lend themselves so well to the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana, in particular the court cards, are another haven for these characters. Every Tarot suit has court cards: a king, queen, knight and page — characters which appear in abundance in fairytales and folklore. The royalty in most fairytales were often not kings and queens, but tribal chiefs, village leaders or town elders whose behaviour could be used as an example. This is refl ected in the choice of fairytale court cards, ranging from the queen in Rumpelstiltskin (Fairy Tale Tarot) to represent the Queen of Swords, to the Princess and the Pea as the Princess of Pentacles in Lisa Hunt’s deck.
As each suit deals with different aspects of day-to-day life and survival, so the grittier stories within the tales highlight loss, family troubles, money worries, relationship diffi culties and decisions over work and home life. The imagery on the cards and a basic knowledge of the tales can guide a reader through the interpretations. As these cards are often aimed at new or younger tarot readers, cards featuring familiar images can help nurture the intuition of a new reader, encouraging them to recognise and create links between the cards and their meanings. These instant picture clues give clearer links through the complications of the Tarot pack in a way that sets a strong foundation for further exploration as the reader becomes more confi dent. In the Inner Child cards, the imagery draws on the cardinal element of each suit. The traditional cups are replaced with hearts and feature playful mermaids, while the wands are replaced with magic wands and draw on Welsh folklore of fairies. The swords use Excalibur to explore the element of air and pentacles or coins are replaced with Earth Crystals mined by wise gnomes. While each card follows the traditional interpretation of the Tarot pack, the meaning is presented in a more literary way, helping both reader and subject to reach a satisfying conclusion to their reading.
The other two packs follow a similar grouping using the cardinal elements, pulling together water, fi re, earth and air driven tales to create the suits, but again offering cards with such instant recognition, the interpretations have more clarity. While fairytales are still a perfect way to introduce children to literature as well as their own imaginations, it is the wise person who sees beyond the seeming simplicity of the tales and appreciates them for their historical importance. Fairytales can speak to us with a wisdom of centuries, rather like the magic cards at the beginning of this feature, and by listening carefully, we can all live happily, ever after.
Article © Prediction Magazine