Winter and the solstice are almost upon us, bringing lovely snow, as well as reminders of pagan traditions and myths not-quite-forgotten.
Age-old themes are often reflected in tarot decks and oracle cards, many of which use spectacular and creative imagery to convey ancient archetypes.
Regions of the world accustomed to months of winter’s snowy embrace mythologised and anthropomorphised the primeval forces of frost, snow, and glaciers, turning their fears and experiences into stories and images that survive, sometimes in very different guises than their original, pagan or pre-Christian versions.
The Fairy Ring Oracle, written by Anna Franklin and beautifully illustrated by Paul Mason, is divided into suits representing the four seasons. Each season is made up of a variety of good and bad fairies, some of which are helpful, some irksome. The Yule card, shown here to the left, includes an image of Santa Claus.
In the accompanying book, Anna Franklin says that Santa, “a very special fairy,” possibly derives from the god Odin, who
… rode the skies at Yule wearing a red, bloody flayed animal skin, punishing the wicked and rewarding the good. It seems likely he passed into lore as the King of Winter in mummer’s plays.
In Germany and Austria he was transformed into Schrimmelreiter or ‘White Horse Rider’. He entered North America via the Dutch Sante Klaas. Similar gift-giving fairies include Icelandic Jola Sveinar, the Danish Julenisse, and the Swedish Jul Tomte.
In the same deck, the Knave of the Winter Court is Jack Frost, “the winter fairy who scatters ice in his wake.” He’s a creature from English folklore, possibly related to Russia’s Father Frost, “the soul of winter,” whose icy embrace brings death to helpless travelers.
Father Frost has another facet to his character, however. Like Oden before him—and foreshadowing Santa Claus—in folklore, Father Frost also bestows gifts to good children.
Wintertime, always associated with darkness and death, becomes an excellent foil for our most visceral fears. These fears are summed up in myths handed down through folklore from villages all over Europe, but most particularly more superstitious parts of central Europe; Germany; the Alps; Russian and Scandinavia, all places that see severe, long winters.
Santa Claus may know who’s naughty or nice, but his enforcer of punishment is often a hideous satyr-like figure. In the often cruel and frightening European folklore-fairytale tradition, punishment or reward are actions split between ‘good’ Santa Claus and his ‘bad’ sidekick, who assumes various guises over time.
One of the most disturbing, the “Krampus,” stems from pagan tradition, and has been associated with the half-goat Pan, as well as the mythical ‘wildman’ of the forest, the ‘woodwose’.
Parents of yore apparently made use of the Krampus’ threats of violence to keep their children in line. More upsetting even than the traditional image of the Devil card in the Tarot, however, is that of Krampus with children in his thrall, chained, looking scared and in pain.
Numinous beings of pre-Christian origin seem to contain both dark and light as part of their fundamental nature. However, Christianity created any number of schisms, not the least of which is the one that exists between dark and light.
A perfect example of the split between dark and light employed by Christianity when it literally demonised pagan imagery, is C. S. Lewis‘ The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe.
In Narnia, it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” In this one piece of symbolism alone, you see the dichotomised roles winter and Christmas play in the popular imagination, and the extent to which winter has been separated from any sense of its beauty, just as our sensibilities have been trained to ignore natural and seasonal rhythms the pre-Christian pagans honored.
Ironically, Jadis, The White Witch, who fits in so perfectly with winter’s icy theme due to her inner coldness, represents paganism, since Christians were taught to hate the very idea of witches.
Even more ironically, some Christians now think of The Chronicles of Narnia as works of paganism, and even witchcraft, with Aslan representing Lucifer, rather than Jesus Christ. Was C. S. Lewis a pagan? This question is bandied about a great deal in theological circles, and books are written, speculating and pointing to textual evidence as ‘proof’.
Christianity’s abhorrence of paganism and all its celebrations divorces the winter season from its natural role. Instead, Western society has been taught to project all our fears of the dark and everything associated with it onto winter. The depths of winter have traditionally been the time we gather together around the fire, telling ghost stories, remembering the dead, worshiping the light in other ways, such as with the pagan tradition of Yule and solstice celebrations.
Images of nature predominate in other, more secular and postmodern oracle-style decks. Winter’s beauty, stillness, and snowy magic are natural subjects for oracle cards like the Voyager tarot deck, which makes use of a variety of photographic images to impart the message of each card. In the case of the Two of Worlds, the card’s meaning has to do with self-reflection and inner stillness associated with winter’s cold.
Snow, ice, and winter imagery combine to depict the idea of stillness, inner awareness, and abilities that make use of the High Priestess’ inner wisdom. As a Two, the card is aligned with the High Priestess, whose inner stillness is best conveyed by the cool blue, white, and silver colors of winter.
In the more recent Snowland deck, winter itself is the theme, but it’s the winter of one’s childhood fantasies, with vibrant colors and themes that turn traditional tarot imagery around, compelling you to see traditional tarot anew. The Snowland deck was designed to “encourage intuitive insight, creative ideas, mindfulness, fruitful brainstorming, empowered problem solving and imaginative play.”
This seems to be the direction many decks are going in; rather than calling themselves tarot or even oracle decks, they are designed to encourage creativity and awaken inspiration.
Winter’s cold enforces quiet self-reflection, spent indoors looking out the windows at the grey sky and frozen earth. The upcoming winter solstice might just be the perfect time to find a deck that encourages your own creativity and self-awareness, and allow winter to work its magic on you. Instead of focusing on dismaying predictions of 2012 solstice-doom, mull over the richness of your inner world instead.
- Christ or Santa Claus; Man, am I confused! (ptl2010.com)
- Man arrested after telling kids Santa Claus isn’t real (myfox8.com)
- I Saw Mommy Googling Santa Claus: 2012 Online Shopping Trends (anewdomain.net)