XVI. The Tower


Meaning:   Things can be overwhelmingly against your favor.  There’s not much you can do when lightning strikes.  Be ready for even the most stable of things to collapse, and use caution.  But if you are able to see the right action, even in a situation of abrupt change, you are stronger than the mightiest tower.

Reversed:   There are stories that tell us there is no future, there are stories that tell us we are being constantly watched, and will be punished for any imperfection.  These stories are like a tower, inaccessible but visible wherever you are.  In this case, the destruction of the tower means ending the power something has over you, rebuilding it in your own terms, within yourself.




The tower is a sturdy image. Why is this tall tower having its top blown clean off by a thunderbolt? A scene of surprise and unusual physics – lightning bolts don’t usually tear stone castles down. There are unanswered questions.  And there are always victims, mid plummet to the ground.

This card is considered by most scholars to be the merger of two cards, Hellmouth and Lightning.  The Hellmouth first appeared in Anglo-Saxon art in the 800s, a continuation of the wolf creature Fenrir’s role in heathen myth, and became widespread quickly as a visual for Hell, especially as stage art in theatre.  Ultimately, no traveling theatre company was without one.

Bourges Cathedral, French Gothic, 12th Cent.
Bourges Cathedral, French Gothic, 12th Cent.


The Lightning card most typically shows a tree being struck by lightning with a startled shepherd nearby.  And lighting is the usual blasting device for the Tower, so the tower may in some way be the tree.  If our tarot symbols are a blend of humanism and neo-Classical revival, we must give higher regard to the Tree of Life, as old symbol for the Mother Goddesses as any, as they had been in the days of sacred groves.

Petrus Christus, Madonna of the Dry Tree, 15th C.
Petrus Christus, Madonna of the Dry Tree, 15th C.

This is what I imagine when I see it – the emblem of the tree being struck by lightning means the loss of the old order of matriarchal religion, a recurring theme in the tarot.  By the same logic, the image of the tower being struck by lightning depicts the order of the stone god, la mason dieu, being struck by the something new.

Our Lady in the Oak Meerveldhoven, Netherlands. Venerated since the 13th century.
Our Lady in the Oak, Meerveldhoven, Netherlands. Venerated since the 13th century.

But reshaped into the falling castle, makes me think of the destruction of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, which had just taken place when the tarot first appears and would have been a tremendous loss, home of the crown jewels of scholarship that the tarot makers and players esteemed.   And Byzantium was the home of Sophia, embodiment of Wisdom, her city made of stones from Ephesia, from the legendary sanctuary of the Goddess there.  And the column shape suggests a lighthouse, is the card likening the event to the destruction of Alexandria of legend?  Does it recall the First Crusade that birthed the Inquisition and the fall of the Cathars?  Or the dissolution of the Templars in recent times by the same?  For these all could have come to mind with similar sentiment.

Belgian Tarot, 18th Cent.

It could also help explain how Hellmouth gives way to the Tower, to look at a common early name for it, La Maison Dieu or House of God.  How does an image of hell become the House of God?  And when has that ever been blown up in the stories?  But if it was a reference to the armies of the west destroying their allies in the jewel of the east, we might have our answer.  And who perpetrated the destruction?  By a play on the sound of the words, la mason dieu, we get mason god, an interesting combo to arrive with a new image of blasted stonework.  This suggests Plato’s Demiurge, and perhaps is a veiled reference to the destruction of Byzantium by servants of a false god.  Its destruction is what left France to hold the keys to Empire for a time.

Lightning Strike in the L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park

If we are to follow a possible pattern in the Tarot, in which some of the gods west of Rome have their parallels in the cards, we can easily arrive at Toranis, the god of thunder for the Gauls and many others.  Known as Thor in other places, the male sky god of the North of course would have been comparable to Jove in the Roman religion.  And it would have been noticed, as Rome took over one land after another, that Jove got to be king at the same time.  This would have made Jove a ‘false god’ to anyone who was fond of their own culture’s ways.  In the regions where the Tarot first developed to a flourish, along the what is today the Riviera, languages and cultures yet survived from pre-Roman times, their oddities protected in the cosmopolitan nature of sea trade.  It was in this region that the first Republics as we consider them today appeared, small states free of a monarch and ruled by counsels.  They joined a long history of similar attempts, all the way to Axum and as far away as India.

Hendrick van Cleve-to 1589_construction-tower-babel
Hendrick van Cleve, to 1589, Construction of the Tower of Babel. A blockbuster theme in the art of the time. Mightier have fallen…

I can’t make an honest account of the Tarot in the context of its own time without including the most likely visual correlate to the Tower in Northern Italy, and that would be the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel of course.  It is a story of vanity, a fantastic parallel for the concept of empire which, after the Hundred Years War was a fairly laughable prospect that did indeed seem to be a foundation whose top is struck by disaster repeatedly.  The Emperor Nebuchadnezzer orders the construction of a super tower, it pisses off the gods and the thing is destroyed.  It’s also part of what passed for history class in those days, it was taught that everyone spoke the same language, until this event in which the languages were scattered and the ‘races’ were created.  Needless to say the time of Babylon already knew countless tongues across the world, but the story of human organization going overboard and falling apart is a theme of the times of, and reflected within, the Tarot.

Bedford Hours, 1423. Note the falling figures at the top.
Bedford Hours, 1423. Note the falling figures at the top.

Bedford Hours, Babel 15th