XXI. The World

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Meaning: A return to business as usual.  Settling down.  Letting memory wash away the years.  Polishing the marble of your shrine.  Raising a family.  Wondering at the glittering of this golden prison.


Reversed:  An agitated spirit.  Unable to enjoy a moment of peace.  Interrupting your own plans, breaking your tools.  A narrow heart from lack of gratitude. Endure – the world does’t always dish out what you want.

Marseilles

Charles VI (Estensi)

Visconti-Modrone

These four cards alone are a stunning array of allegoric pictures of The World, revealing a very subjective card.  The four directions, the four winds, the four elements, these are usual characters.  The Lady, with the sky for a cloak, the Mother, the sea that surrounds. All the green or good, and in the case of the Paris card, all the shower curtain as well, are the usual subjects, as though illustrating a very specific, balanced world.  And it’s here the world of the trumps ends, with the World card.  One world becomes another.  After the trump sequence of trials and joys and labors, what does it mean to end it all with The World?

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We can tell that the design of the card takes well know symbols for defining the cosmos and simplifies them right down to the simplicity of a primal Earth Mother.  The earth contained in a circle, the orb that you see the Pope holding, and the vesica piscis, essentially the symbol of the vagina, the symbol of creation.  What reveals this in the choices of imagery for The World card, is in what it does not depict.  Below is the cover of a Middle Ages book three hundred years earlier than the Tarot, belonging to a Holy Roman Emperor.  You will find the montage of Pagan and Christian emblems, a resurrection scene that resembles the judgement card, the Four Living Creatures of great continuous Antiquity (to before Babylon, the Lion, Ox, Man and Eagle), with the 12 Apostles distinguished from them.  In all, a heretical blend of mythologies that was the continual privilege of Nobility, and it reveals that the ideas in the Tarot are not all that changed from a comprehensive, elite idea of education, that included a balance of history.  The story of the Tarot then is the story of a curious way new arrangements of ideas were transmitted from the few to the many.

Pericopes of Emperor Henry II 11th Cent
Cover of the Pericopes of Emperor Henry II, 11th Century. Ivory, gold. enamel, gemstones. Zoom in for detail.

The World card in the Tarot, by contrast, is an exercise in the minimal poetic visual.  Each contains a little clue, in a simple world scene.  None of the emblems are overtly Christian, and nearly every World card depicts instead a Woman governing over the Earth.  Often she is a disembodied torso, suggesting the bowl of the Earth was the remainder of her body.  The last card of the Tarot is without doubt a Renaissance imagining of the primal Earth Mother, for whom the first stone temples were lain.

Giardano Bruno, 16-17th Cent.
Giardano Bruno, 16-17th Cent.

The innovation of the World card also calls to mind various theories of the Spheres that were being developed, especially in cosmology and astrology, that would give birth to modern astronomy.  XXI The World is transparent and simple in its comprehensiveness.  It is also the reward at the end of the “Fool’s Journey”, a suggestion of anything from rebirth to simply wisdom.  In any case, the Tarot’s conception of the World, its grand finale, is that of a benevolent, Mothering creation, a surface where life in all its miraculousness is able to cling, thrive and adapt.  By making one’s way through the trump cards of the Tarot, we have passed through twenty pre-occupations of human life, and at last, forgetting ourselves, we pierce the veil and begin to see the world as it really is, in as much as it will allow us to see.

Venus Collecting Hearts, Medieval
Venus Collecting Hearts, Medieval

Another tantalizing possibility, if we add up the previous four cards, The Star, The Moon, The Sun and Judgement, we have a riddle whose answer is a possible reference to the Apocalytic Woman Clothed in the Sun, “And a great sign appeared in Heaven: a woman who was wearing the Sun, and the Moon was under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars on her head…”   (Rev. 12:1)

Rothschild Canticles, Mary as the Mulier amicta sole, 1300
Rothschild Canticles, Mary as the Mulier amicta sole, 1300

Such a clear description of the Mother Goddess, who is in the process of conceiving and defending her child from destruction, does battle with a Dragon which in some way has shaped the cosmos.  This ‘prophecy’ is actually a fragment of a very ancient Creation story, and by making the protagonist a woman reveals it as an old telling, as it is the Mother, and not Hercules or Krishna or George, who overcomes the Dragon in the story recounted.  It is the ancient struggle between light, here in the form of the Mother, and darkness, in the form of a malevolent demiurge.  It is also the story of the struggle between Wisdom and Ignorance.  This story has its roots in the lands before Persia, and earlier still.  It is the story of building a life out of the Earth, and protecting the future from the tiresome history of life in the Wild.

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, 1810
William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, 1810

In the end of that chapter of Revelation, it is the Earth itself that helps the woman, and indeed, in the Tarot, it is the World that the sequence of the cards is leading towards.  The collective radiance of our beautiful, strange world dispels darkness and gives birth to life, to the future.  The humanists behind the Tarot are saying that it is the World that must be held in the highest regard, if we are to have a life that is made for living.