Saturday 27 September 2014

Libra in the Major Arcana

Libra is one of the three Air signs, along with Gemini and Aquarius, as well as being one of the cardinal signs.   As such, its energy focuses on the outer world, rather than our inner world, and its main thrust is on social contact.  It seeks partnership – friendship, business, marriage.  It’s not about the passion of a personal relationship – Libra is not thought to be a passionate sign - but more about the ‘contract’, if you like – the need for equality and fairness within relationship.  Libra is the peacemaker, the negotiator, the mediator.  It’s ruled by Venus, providing a sense of refinement, and an awareness of beauty and harmony.

Shadowscapes Tarot
As usual, let’s start our exploration of Libra in the tarot with the Major Arcana.  In my previous post, I mentioned the idea of balance in various traditions – Egyptian and Greek mythology, Christianity – all of which use scales to symbolize the weighing up of whatever’s ‘in the balance’.  That, and the use of the blindfold in some of the imagery, leads us to the Justice card.  

Depending on which deck you use, this is probably either the eighth or the eleventh card in the Major Arcana.  Most (but not all) Rider-Waite-Smith-based decks will have Justice as XI in the Major Arcana – the mid-point of the Fool’s Journey.  Personally, I like the idea of it being the 11th card; having it as the fulcrum of the journey, half-way between the start and the end ‘embodies’ that sense of balance.

Sharman-Caselli Tarot
Some RWS-based decks (for instance Juliet Sharman-Burke and Gionvanni Caselli’s, shown here) place Justice at VIII.   I haven’t found a clear reason for this in the case of the Sharman-Caselli deck, but my guess is that it’s because they wanted to have all four virtues appear in order: 8 – Justice, 9 – Temperance, 10 –Strength, and 11 - The Hermit, the card to which they attribute the virtue of Prudence.  Regardless of the card’s position in the Major Arcana, the image contains most of the ‘traditional’ (i.e. RWS) symbolism – the scales representing perfect balance in one hand, the sword of truth in the other. 

Libra has a reputation (unfair, in my opinion!) for being indecisive. Following from Virgo’s need to analyze everything in great detail, Libra weighs it all carefully but is always having to take new factors into account, upsetting that delicate balance, hence appearing to be constantly changing its mind.  For this reason, my favourite version of the tarot card associated with Libra, Justice, comes from the Thoth deck (although Crowley has re-named the card ‘Adjustment’).  
Thoth Tarot

Like many versions of the Justice card, the image still shows a figure with a set of scales, although here the scales appear to be balanced on her head.  She holds the sword of truth in both hands, between her legs, while balancing on her toes. The entire image of one of balance and harmony – including the coloured spheres (blue for spirit and intellect, green for creativity) in their symmetrical placement. But how long can this balance be held?  All it takes is one distraction, one thought, one new factor, to be added to the scales, and the whole thing is no longer balanced.  So it’s not that Libra is indecisive per se – it’s more that that the picture isn’t static; there’s always something else that needs to be considered, something else to knock us off track. That’s why I like the name ‘Adjustment’ – we’re always having to make adjustments as new elements come into play, in order to maintain our (always precarious) balance!

As our ingress into Libra is also marked by the Autumn Equinox, let’s also look at cards that are associated with this festival.  One deck that uses the Wheel of the Year as its base, rather than astrological associations, is the Wildwood Tarot, created by Mark Ryan and John Matthews, and beautifully illustrated by Will Worthington.  Here we have two cards from the Major Arcana that sit at the Autumn Equinox – The Wheel (X) and The Mirror (XII).  

The Wheel: Wildwood Tarot
The Wheel reminds us of the constantly changing seasons, and that what comes around, goes around.  The equinox is but a moment in time – one where the hours of day and night are balanced, before the hours of darkness increase at the expense of the light.  In many traditions, the autumnal equinox marks the start of a period of withdrawal - not just in terms of physical withdrawal or hibernation - but a time of introspection and inner journeying, contemplation and rest.  

The Mirror: Wildwood Tarot
The Mirror shows us our reflection and allows us to see our inner selves, and by sitting on the Equinox represents the point at which our journey changes direction – from outer to inner; the point where we’re balanced between the two.  And although Mark Ryan and John Matthews aren’t making any astrological associations in their deck, the mirror is often used as to symbolize Libra. Both through Venus’ rulership and its affinity to the 7th house, Libra is concerned with attraction and partnership.  Aries, the sign opposite Libra in the zodiac, is about ‘I’: -how we meet the world as individuals, how we’re seen. Libra is concerned with ‘the other’ - what we look for in our relationships with others.  The mirror allows us to see what others see in us. ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ indeed!
Shadowscapes Tarot created by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law and Barbara Moore, published by Llewellyn
Sharman-Caselli Tarot created by Juliet Sharman-Burke, illustrated by Giovanni Caselli, published by Connections
Thoth Tarot created by Aleister Crowley, illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris, published by US Games Systems, Inc.
Wildwood Tarot created by Mark Ryan and John Matthews, illustrated by Will Worthington, published by Connections.


Tuesday 23 September 2014

Hanging in the balance?

Today is – in the northern hemisphere – the Autumnal Equinox; in the southern hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox. It’s the turning point where, depending on which hemisphere you’re in, the days either become shorter (north) or longer (south), due to the tilt of the Earth and its position relative to the Sun.  This point, where the length of day apparently is equal to the length of night, is marked by the ingress of the Sun into the astrological sign of Libra (in the tropical zodiac) – the scales.

Libra on the right, Scorpio on the left (from
The constellation of Libra (Latin for “weighing scales”) was known as Zibanu (“balance” or “scales”) in Babylonian times. Scales were sacred to Shamash, the Babylonian sun god, who was also associated with truth and justice, concepts that are still associated with the sign of Libra today.  The Babylonians also called this constellation the Claws of the Scorpion – the constellation sits next to that of Scorpio and may have been considered to be part of the scorpion. The Arabic word for scorpion is “zubana”, not dissimilar to the Babylonians’ “zinbanu”, which might perhaps account for the “claws” becoming the ‘scales”.

In Egyptian mythology, Libra is represented by Ma’at, the goddess of the scales who would, at the time of death, weigh the human soul against an ostrich feather to determine whether or not the soul would reincarnate.  Greek mythology gives us Themis, a blindfolded seer who also carries a pair of scales.  The archangel Michael, in Christianity, holds the scales. In each tradition, the theme is balance, of keeping things – be they social or spiritual – in order.  But the story that resonates most with me is the Greek story of the Judgment of Paris. 

'Judgment of Paris', from the Louvre
It starts with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Eris, the goddess of Discord (a “shadow” side of Libra), hasn’t been invited but decides to gate-crash. She throws a golden apple down in front of all the goddesses who have been invited.  On the apple is inscribed ‘to the fairest’.... and so we have perhaps the first beauty pageant! Hera, Aphrodite and Athena are the front-runners, and ask Zeus to choose. Zeus, in his wisdom (or some would argue, cowardice!), elects Paris, a Trojan mortal to be the judge. Atop Mount Ida, the three goddesses attempted to bribe Paris – Hera dangled the prospect of becoming king of Europe and Asia, Athena wisdom and battle skills, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world.  Paris chose Aphrodite’s gift – Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus... and the rest, as they say, is history, at least in mythological terms.  The Trojan horse, the “face that launched a thousand ships” ... even the idea of “who is the fairest” comes up again and again – and not only in fairy tales such as Snow White!

‘Libra’ ©Alison Coals
So many Libran qualities are illustrated in this myth –beauty, harmony, attraction, negotiation and adjudication.  And no surprise that Venus (the Roman goddess most similar to Aphrodite) is the ruler of Libra!  But “to the fairest”?  That also taps into Libran ambiguity!  The fairest in terms of the most beautiful, or the most even-tempered? The most well-balanced when it comes to making judgments? Libra, despite the association with beauty and attraction through Venus, is more a sign of balance. It’s considered and reflective, more concerned with “the other”  (7th house) than with the “I” (1st house). Libra is mediator, negotiator, and diplomat.